Tiffany Shaw was frightened for her children when she moved into the Bakersfield Homeless Center last week, but the unemployed certified nursing assistant had run out of options.
The 2013-14 school year was about to begin, and her 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son had to have a roof over their heads.
"I didn't know if they'd have what they needed for school. I didn't know what school they'd be going to. I didn't know anything," said Shaw, 33.
Fortunately, the worst of her fears have not materialized. The children will keep going to the school they attended last year, and they are benefitting from social services and donations designed to make sure even the most vulnerable of the region's children get a strong start for the school year that started Monday.
It's hard to pin down precisely how many homeless children are enrolled in local schools, said Gail Johnson, an educational liaison for homeless and foster youth in the Kern High School District.
"Teens, especially, don't like to identify themselves because of the stigma," she said.
KHSD has confirmed more than 200 homeless children at its schools, but the district knows that's an unrealistically low number for a district with about 35,000 students.
Staff are trained to look for red flags to uncover children concealing a lack of shelter. Are they missing a lot of homework? Are they hungry all the time? Are they acting out in class?
"That sort of thing doesn't happen unless something's going on at home," Johnson said. "Maybe they're homeless, maybe it's something else, but there's something, and either way we need to get them help."
Bakersfield has a growing human trafficking problem, Johnson said, so getting children off the streets is imperative.
Schools collaborate with a number of public and private agencies to get homeless students the resources they need. The Bakersfield Homeless Center, the Kern County Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, and the United Way's Kern County Homeless Collaborative are just a few of the organizations that partner with districts to make sure homeless students are able to get to school and learn.
Last week, every child in the Bakersfield Homeless Center got a new backpack filled with school supplies through a campaign co-sponsored by KGET-Channel 17 and the The Bakersfield East Rotary Club.
Even in an economic downturn, the community has come through pretty consistently to make sure the roughly 30 families with school-aged children at the center start school prepared, said Jerri Alvarado, who runs the center's Champ Camp after school program.
"When things got tough, we had fewer people give, but those who could give gave more," she said. "People in Bakersfield have good hearts."