Building Bridges

Aiding the unhoused in the SUHSD

Building+Bridges

Oscar Nolf and Mateo Mangolini

“We live in probably one of the richest counties in the world, and yet, we struggle every day with trying to find cheaper housing.” Robert Moltzen

“Diversity, Equity, integrity, and inclusion: Those are the things that we need in our community to  solve the problem of homelessness” Robert Moltzen

“We live in probably one of the richest counties in the world, and yet, we struggle every day with trying to find cheaper housing” Robert Moltzen, Associate Program Director at Life Moves said. Life moves is a non-profit organization with branches across the Bay Area, dedicated to aiding those in need in regards to housing and unemployment. Located across a bridge straddling the 101, behind a wasteland of construction and industrial equipment, one would be perplexed as to how such a valuable resource is so hidden from the public view

Perhaps no issue is as dually age-old yet relevant as the plight of the unhoused. Such an issue, seemingly endemic to our self-absorbed and materialistic modern world, has only further reared its head in recent years, even in our very own Sequoia Union High School District. 

An Overview of the UnHoused Problem of Redwood City:

As of 2019, 27 percent of the houseless  population in the United States resides within this golden state of California, primarily in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In San Francisco alone, a recent count of the city’s unhoused population estimates the population at 18,000, a 225 percent increase since the last count in 2019. Even in the quiet suburbia that is Redwood City, the unhoused find themselves in a state of neglect amongst our transit stations and commercial zones. 66 families in the Sequoia Union High School District met the criteria to be in transition, which means that the student’s and their family’s  housing situation is unsecure. It is crucial to remember that houselessness is a stigmatized topic, therefore the reported number of  families in transition is most likely higher as some families have shame in being in transition. While it’s easy to ignore or overlook the homeless population as apathetic, elements of Sequoia High School hope to aid those less fortunate members of our community. 

The Parent Center’s role in aiding housing insecure students:

An often overlooked segment of the unhoused and housing insecure population are those who are still required to attend regular schooling. For students who lack the permanent, secure residence required for learning, acquiring resources such as a secure internet can be a daily challenge. This is where Sequoia High School’s parent center enters, run by one Elvira Macias. Tucked into the lower level of Sequoia’s main building, Macias and her staff are dedicated to the aid of families in need among their various psychedelic tapestries and carpets. In conjunction with non-profit and state-run groups such as Housing is Key and Live in Peace, the Parent Center hopes to preserve educational opportunity through rent-assistance and internet hotspot programs.

“When the pandemic hit, many families lost their jobs, so they didn’t have enough money to pay rent,” Macias said. “We created a team of 25 to 30 volunteers to help families create applications to apply for homeless aid.” 

That team of volunteers is especially important for their ability to translate government application documents into Spanish for various families at Sequoia High School. The documents are written in English and are required to be filled out in order to receive rent-assistance. As a high school with a sizable ESL demographic, it is imperative that Sequoia makes the assistance that the government provides accessible to all regardless of English proficiency. 

Macias’ department also deals with the issue of internet connectivity for housing and rent-insecure students.  Providing free wifi hotspot devices, either through AT&T or TMobile, students are able to continue their studies in spite of the massively inequitable situation they find themselves in. It should be noted that, despite this help, internet issues continue to persist, especially in the North Fair Oaks area of Redwood City. 

The District’s role in aiding housing insecure students:

While the Parent Center’s duties in aiding housing insecure students and families primarily works through community operated resources and programs, the SUHSD has a wealth of government and district operated programs to help.

“The most important thing is connecting the families with resources, even before they get to the school site,” Student Welfare and Attendance Coordinator, Alvaro Calderon said. “By the time they get to the school site, we want to make sure that we do a handoff to somebody at the site,so that [they] understand what the student’s needs are.”

Calderon specifically stressed the holistic nature of aiding the housing insecure. In particular, he noted the varying factors that can influence a person’s housing status, and the  need to attack all of them at once in order to provide the most aid. 

“There’s a lot of shelters that provide support to families in transition,” Calderon said. I’ll make the referral directly to the organization, and then I’ll reach out to the family, and when they have a space available ( like an apartment), they’ll bring the family in for a determined period of time.”

Of particular importance to Calderon and the district is ensuring a sustainable living situation. Chief among Calderon’s priorities (besides securing housing) is ensuring some form of stable job for families in transition. 

“ [LifeMoves] will set up a plan; if you have a job, you’re not going to pay rent here for six months, we’re going to help you save enough money, we’re going to help you with your finances,”’ Calderon said.  “If you don’t have a job, we’ll help you find the job. We work with the families to stabilize their current situation.”

The challenges that ESL and undocumented students face while being unhoused:

California in particular has had to grapple with the reality of ongoing waves of migration from central and South America. When children and teens are stopped and detained at the border, it is not uncommon for the government to place them in the care of a distant relative or friend, whose abode may not be the most welcoming to these new arrivals.

“The way it looks is that a minor will […]  come over to the US, they’ll be detained at the border, transported to a detention center, and then they get released, not to parents, but  to a caregiver,” Calderon said. “A lot of the times they stay with the caregiver  for three, four months, and then they feel like they it’s time to move somewhere else or, or they’re no longer welcome in the house for whatever reason, and  they have to find another relative or somebody else to move in with.”

Additionally, due to the pressure to support their families in their country of origin, many of these newcomers to the US are forced to make difficult choices between prioritizing school or a paying job. This, combined with food insecurity and instability at home, can create a cocktail of issues that hamper a student’s ability to learn and thrive in a school environment.

“We can do the enrollment, we can sign them up for free and reduced lunch, we can provide all the resources […]  necessary. But the students’ main focus, for the most part, is really, ‘I need to find a job, so that I can help support my family in my country,’ and they know they understand that they are obliged  to enroll in school,” Calderon said.

While there are various immediate solutions by different organizations to help those who are (or are in danger of being) without housing,Calderon and his associates recognize the importance to look at this problem not as one to be solved by single actors, or by institutions far removed from our involvement, but rather the struggles of the unhoused as a challenge to our community as a whole.

“Diversity, Equity and integrity, and inclusion: Those are the things that we need in our community to  solve the problem of homelessness”Moltzen said. “ homelessness is not an individual problem, it is a community problem. And the only way that we can come together is if all the entities of our community come together and advocate for low income housing, advocate for job placements, advocate for students not dropping out of high school” Moltzen said. 

“It’s just about being helpful and helping find that shelter,” Filise Maafu, a security guard at Sequoia High School, said. “If you’re able to do it, give out a hand”. 

For those who would like to help, consider donating to or volunteering at any number of houseless aid organizations, whether international or in the Bay Area. During our research, we found a Redwood City-based organization, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which would eagerly accept any aid given.