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How the Alhambra Unified School District tackles homelessness during Thanksgiving and beyond

  • HOPE bags for needy Alhambra Unified students and families. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

On November 9, 2016, Alhambra Unified School District staff gathered with personnel from their non-profit partners to deliver HOPE bags, for students and their families who would not have access to meals during Thanksgiving break. This is just one initiative that AUSD has taken on to help students who don't have access to adequate shelter.

This is Betty Sodir's second year as the Homeless and Parent Engagement (HOPE) counselor for the school district. She helps students in many different living situations, from those sleeping at shelters, motels, cars or in overcrowded conditions, to unaccompanied youth who are couchsurfing or staying with a friend. 

"We even have a family that lives in a barn right now," Sodir said. Though the numbers change every day, she says that there are currently around 200 HOPE students. The program ensures that these students are able to enroll in an AUSD school right away, and provides them with immunizations, transportation, school supplies and other essentials to facilitate that, as well as support afterward to make sure they're doing well academically. 

The HOPE program is AUSD's answer to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which mandates that homeless children and youth get equal access "to the same free, appropriate public education" as others. This program is also essential in tackling homelessness in Alhambra, something that the city is also undertaking, by planning to spend $200,000 on case management for the city's homeless population.

Identifying HOPE students is a challenge. Students and families often seek out the HOPE program themselves, sometimes when fleeing dangerous situations like domestic violence, or they get referrals from friends and teachers. AUSD office staff is also trained to spot red flags, like an enrolling student missing an address, and then ask follow up questions.

The HOPE program also partners with two other organizations to provide for the students and their families' short-term and long-term non-academic needs. The faith-based Kingdom Causes will provide school supplies, emergency shelter and other immediate solutions, while a caseworker from Family Promise of San Gabriel Valley helps HOPE students and families find long-term housing.

All three organizations collaborated on the the HOPE bags, which contain ready-to-eat food like Cup Noodles, Easy Mac, cookies and bottled water for students' Thanksgiving break meals. Sodir says that many HOPE students rely on school breakfasts and lunches for the bulk of their daily meals, but that there's a gap in that access during school breaks. Some students have EBT cards, but those often start running out as well.

"What many of the families said, 'We need something that we can eat that's easy to access,' " she explained. "We can go to the food bank and get canned food, but we can't make canned food in the motel. So I need something that I can eat easily at the park."

Kingdom Causes helped put together the HOPE bags, based on donations from members of their networks of churches. "We have community members that are willing to help, they have resources, they want to help, they don't know where to help," explained Tina Dunn, Kingdom Causes' outreach coordinator. "So this is a place for them to utilize helping the community and doing something good."

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