Help for the Homeless

How one school district coordinator helps kids all year long

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The holiday season is here with crowded shopping malls, light-strung rooftops, and hopeful wish lists for toys and treats. For some kids in North San Diego County, however, the wish list is more basic. They would like to have a home.

The nation's current economic downturn has left many families in the Vista Unified School District without a place to call their own.

"We had about 700 homeless students in our school district," said Rebecca Benner, the homeless outreach coordinator for the district. "Now we have 2800. There was a sharp increase."

Benner's job requirements have "changed dramatically since the dip in the economy," she said.  She works with homeless children from preschool to 12th grade in north San Diego County.

Recently, Benner sat in the warm November sun at Moonlight Beach watching her own child climb on a nearby play structure as she discussed how the nature of the homeless population she serves has changed.

"I think when I first started in this position four years ago, a lot of the families I worked with had some drug and alcohol issues that caused them troubles with being gainfully employed," she told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps. "Now I see the full spectrum of families that have been laid off and have lost their home and are in that domino effect because they have lost their income."

Previously, Brenner worked with community agencies that provide food, clothing, shelter, hygiene items, and backpacks for homeless children. These agencies are also feeling the pinch of fewer resources in the current economy and are able to give less, she reported.

The decrease in resources is becoming starkly evident this holiday season. Local homeless shelters and food banks have fewer resources as they try to serve more clients.

"There is a waiting list at every single shelter in our region," Brenner said. "Food banks are low because a lot of companies that would typically donate cannot because they are struggling, too."

During the holidays, Brenner not only needs to stay focused on meeting the basic needs of the homeless child and providing stability so the child can remain in school, she also strives to provide holiday meals, warm clothing, and gifts. When she needed to recruit new resources to help the homeless population in her school district, she found support through other nonprofits, such as churches in the area.

Student governments in the 33 schools in Vista have also stepped forward to help, handing out food and clothing donations to those in need at their school sites. They have also generated their own donations for the homeless in their school districts.

Benner helped to coordinate the school-based efforts and also helped organize food and clothing drives at the homeless shelters. She sees her role in the lives of the homeless children as "the person who steps in and stabilizes things."

"I think of myself as a collaborator," she said. "I connect those in need with those who can give."

Kids and the Economy

Kid Reporters take a look at the economy and how it is affecting kids and their communities during this holiday season in the Kids and the Economy Special Report.


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