Schools may lose access to emergency hotel stays, a critical strategy to help homeless students

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This story was co-published with USA Today.

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SAN DIEGO — Each request in Linda Lee Garibay’s inbox offers a tiny glimpse into San Diego County’s housing crisis and its profound effect on kids.

On a Thursday in early November, a family with four children in the San Diego Unified School District had just been evicted. Another San Diego family with a 6-year-old needed to leave the trailer park where they’d been staying. In the Poway Unified district, a family of four needed a respite after sleeping in their car for over a month.

Lee Garibay, a project specialist for the San Diego County education office, reviewed each family’s situation, then helped to reserve them a free room at a Motel 6 close to their child’s school. She’s the engine behind what is likely the country’s largest emergency hotel stay program supporting students experiencing homelessness.

“You spend so much time dealing with families that need help and not having anything to give them,” said Susie Terry, who coordinates homeless education services for San Diego County. “I had homeless liaisons who were just like, ‘This is the first time I feel like I actually have some real help to offer.’”

San Diego’s Project Rest and other programs like it exemplify the way schools are increasingly expanding their work beyond teaching and learning to meet the basic needs of students and their families. Hotel stays have become a crucial strategy for schools seeking to address rising student homelessness and chronic absenteeism. They are also unprecedented: Never before have schools had the money and permission to offer this kind of material aid at such a scale.

School staff and advocates for homeless youth say these programs have been transformative: The stability they provide boosts school attendance and allows kids to focus on their schoolwork. But despite their impact, programs like Project Rest are at risk of disappearing.

That’s because many are funded with federal pandemic aid for homeless students that goes away next school year, and along with it, special spending rules that allow for hotel stays. Federal officials have said schools cannot use the federal funds they typically receive to help homeless students on short-term housing, such as hotel stays.

Terry is searching for funding alternatives, but isn’t hopeful.

“I think it’s a shame,” she said, “because it’s desperately needed.”

Linda Lee Garibay at a park in Chula Vista, California. Lee Garibay is a project specialist for the San Diego County education office who books free short-term hotel stays for families.
Linda Lee Garibay at a park in Chula Vista, California. Lee Garibay is a project specialist for the San Diego County education office who books free short-term hotel stays for families.

Why schools are turning to hotels to help homeless kids

Before the pandemic, Terry got the occasional call from a school liaison asking if the county could do anything to help a family that needed a place to stay. All she could do was refer them to other agencies, where families often had to wait for housing. The federal McKinney-Vento program that provides funds for homeless students has a miniscule budget and doesn’t allow for short-term hotel stays.

So when the federal government gave states and schools $800 million in COVID aid to help homeless students — eight times what they’d usually get in a year — plus instructions that they could use that money for short-term housing assistance, Terry decided to hire a staffer and launch the hotel program.

She knew there would be high demand. More than 20,000 homeless students lived in San Diego County during the 2021-22 school year, state data show. That meant 4.3% of students did not have a fixed and adequate place to stay at night, compared with the national average of 2.4%.

But even Terry sorely underestimated the need. Initially, her team expected one or two requests a week. They typically get 10 a day.

“It was shocking,” she said.

Since the program launched 20 months ago, it has housed more than 1,200 families. Together, San Diego County and a dozen local school districts have spent around $640,000 to run it. On a single day in November, 64 students and their families were staying at hotels through the program.

In the past, schools typically advised families in need of housing to call the county’s social services helpline. But they were unlikely to get into a shelter within a day, or even a week. So parents and kids often slept in their cars or on the street while they waited. Now, through Project Rest, families can check into a hotel room within 24 hours.

Students have needed a hotel stay for all kinds of reasons, Lee Garibay says. Many were staying with family or friends and were asked to leave with little warning.

Some need a break from sleeping in their cars. San Diego’s safe parking program offers security, but no showers, and even those lots have waitlists.

Others are fleeing domestic violence. Some stay with family during the week, but need lodging on weekends. Some saw their homes destroyed by a fire or landslide.

And this fall, Lee Garibay helped a 17-year-old with a 2-week-old baby after they ran out of days at a local shelter and had nowhere else to go.

Many shelters and housing resources cater to single adults, so it can be “transformative” when schools can find housing for families, said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of homeless youth.

“It’s a critical intervention at this moment,” she said.

How hotel stays can help homeless students

A key feature of the program is that families are offered all kinds of support while they stay at the hotel. Families often enroll in CalFresh, which helps low-income families pay for food, and get connected with a housing case manager.

Some families have cried when they found out a person would help them look for housing, Terry said. The county doesn’t keep data on how many families find stable housing, but case workers are sometimes successful. In early November, a social worker in the South Bay Union School District wrote to Lee Garibay that a family could check out of their motel room because an agency had found them permanent housing. “That’s what we like to hear!” Lee Garibay exclaimed.

The program can also lead to kids getting more support at school.

Some families who’ve stayed in hotels weren’t identified as homeless by their school before — often because they were afraid to let the staff know — and didn’t realize their child is legally entitled to stay at their school and receive transportation, even if they move.

Julia Sutton, a social worker for the Chula Vista Elementary School District in California, looks over homes and an industrial area near Finney Elementary in late November.
Julia Sutton, a social worker for the Chula Vista Elementary School District in California, looks over homes and an industrial area near Finney Elementary in late November.

Social workers in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, for example, make sure families staying at a hotel know about other services the district can offer, whether that’s priority access to before- and after-school programs, trauma-informed counseling for their child, or reimbursement for driving to school.

Lee Garibay logs the information of every family who uses the program — how many kids they have, what schools they attend, what help they need — in a giant blue spreadsheet. If a family uses the program for a second time, Lee Garibay looks at which resources they were connected with and tries to figure out what helped — and what didn’t.

“We work in education, we don’t work in housing,” she said. “But at the same time, from my perspective, if we don’t help assist them with housing, how are we going to make sure that they are stable in their education?”

The Chula Vista Elementary School District has become one of the county’s top referrers to the program. They’ve housed 55 families in hotels since the start of the school year.

Located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the district of 29,000 serves families who live in million-dollar homes and families who sleep in store parking lots. The community has no family shelter or official safe parking program. Depending on traffic, the nearest shelter that accepts children can be over an hour away by car — a trip many families can’t afford in San Diego County, where gas prices are much higher than the national average.

Additionally, the rising cost of food and rent since the pandemic and an increase in asylum-seeking families crossing the border have intensified housing needs, school staff say.

On left, backpacks that social worker Julia Sutton keeps for children who need them at Finney Elementary. On right, student artwork on the walls of the room where social workers meet with students.
On left, backpacks that social worker Julia Sutton keeps for children who need them at Finney Elementary. On right, student artwork on the walls of the room where social workers meet with students.

Julia Sutton is one of eight social workers who works with students experiencing homelessness in the district. Academics improve when kids have lights to do their homework, Sutton said, and they’re sleeping on a bed, not crunched up in the car.

Knowing they have a place to stay can put children at ease. Sutton recalls one student who came up to her in early November to excitedly report: “I heard we have more nights at the hotel!” Mothers have told the social workers that when their kids see the Motel 6 has a pool, it helps them feel like they’re not in crisis, if only for a little while.

“It’s only 15 days, but it’s more stable than jumping from place to place each night,” Sutton said. “They’re still in crisis, but at least they’re getting to school every day and there is a deeper sense of community with your school. They feel supported.”

Making sure kids and families feel safe

In San Diego, Project Rest is a partnership between the county education office and San Diego Youth Services, a nonprofit that supports youth experiencing homelessness and has a corporate contract with Motel 6. The streamlined process is easier for service providers to navigate than working with individual hotels, said Gillian Leal, a program manager for the organization.

A family needs a government-issued ID to check in, but doesn’t have to put down a credit card for damages. That arrangement is crucial. For one, many families don’t have a credit card. And there’s no chance that a paperwork glitch will result in a canceled room.

The San Diego program allows families to stay at a hotel for five nights at a time. If their school district is contributing funds, they can stay for up to 15. But elsewhere, school districts have been hesitant to allow hotel stays for that long.

Gillian Leal, program manager for San Diego Youth Services' TAY Academy, sorts through clothing donations meant to support youth experiencing homelessness on Monday, Nov. 27.
Gillian Leal, program manager for San Diego Youth Services’ TAY Academy, sorts through clothing donations meant to support youth experiencing homelessness on Monday, Nov. 27.

When U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona first issued guidance for the $800 million in COVID aid in early 2021, he wrote that the funds could be used for short-term, temporary housing, such as “a few days in a motel.” Many school officials interpreted that to mean two or three days, although Terry said that short time frame can make it hard to get families help in a compassionate way.

This fall, after nearly two dozen education organizations, including SchoolHouse Connection, urged the U.S. Department of Education to explicitly permit longer motel stays, a top official issued a clarification that the length of short-term housing provided could vary based on families’ circumstances and other factors.

Similar programs exist elsewhere. In Ohio, Cincinnati Public Schools partners with a local nonprofit that serves homeless youth to house families at a Quality Inn along a public bus route. They’ve housed more than 220 families at the hotel over the last year and a half.

In central Florida, Gigi Salce, a wraparound services specialist for the School District of Osceola County, has worked with Stayable Suites and Rodeway Inn. The partnership has helped families get off housing wait lists and kept kids from sleeping in Walmart parking lots.

And on California’s Central Coast, the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District has housed 63 families through its partnership with Motel 6 over the last year and a half. Donnie Everett, an assistant superintendent who oversees support services for the district, said the program has boosted attendance and kept students on track for graduation.

But there are some challenges beyond schools’ control.

If the area is a tourism destination, rooms can fill up quickly. In San Diego, for example, the program is harder and more expensive to run during the annual Pride Festival and Comic-Con. Rural areas, like San Diego’s mountainous East County, are less likely to have hotels near schools. And some hotels are deterred by the possibility of damages or last-minute cancellations.

“It was a bit of a struggle to find the right hotel that would accept families,” said Katie Jensen of UpSpring, the nonprofit that books rooms for Cincinnati students. “People don’t necessarily want homeless families on their properties.”

School districts may not be able to afford their hotel stay programs once they exhaust federal COVID relief funds. In an email, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said those relief dollars could be used for short-term housing because social distancing rules meant shelters weren’t available to many families. That’s no longer the case — and if McKinney-Vento program funds were spent on housing, they would quickly be exhausted, leaving little to provide for students’ educational needs, the spokesperson said.

The McKinney-Vento program, which focuses on making sure homeless students have access to the same educational opportunities as their peers, is around $100 million a year for the whole country, compared with $800 million in pandemic assistance for homeless students.

Everett in Monterey is working to secure private funding for his district’s program. Terry is looking to see if she can tap into county or state funds to keep a smaller version of their program alive.

Some states have decided to step in. Maine started a pilot program this year that gives schools emergency money to prevent student homelessness, and one allowable use is a short-term hotel stay. Since 2016, Washington state has offered grants to provide stability to homeless students that can be used on hotel stays of up to three months.

A school bus outside Finney Elementary on Friday, Nov. 3. The school is part of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which has housed dozens of families in hotels this year.
A school bus outside Finney Elementary on Friday, Nov. 3. The school is part of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which has housed dozens of families in hotels this year.

Mary Jane Palacios, the assistant manager of a Motel 6 that works with Project Rest, says hotels and motels that partner with schools need to make sure their properties are welcoming, and treat families with empathy and dignity.

At her location in Chula Vista, for example, if a family leaves behind their belongings, the staff will hold items for up to 30 days.

“We know you have a whole life inside of that room,” she said.

Palacios experienced homelessness as a child, and remembers what it felt like to walk out of a hotel with her mother and to be bullied at school.

“I totally get where a lot of the struggling moms are coming from, I totally get where the kids are coming from,” said Palacios, who watches each morning as families fan out in different directions from the Motel 6 parking lot, some running to catch the trolley to go to school.

So while she tells families to remember that their circumstances are temporary, she also stocks the pool chest with floaties for kids to play with. She makes sure the hotel is decked out with spider webs and candy for Halloween. And in December, her staff hands out hot cocoa and decorates a real Christmas tree.

“I like to put that out for the kids,” Palacios said, “because I wish those programs were there for us when we were little.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Kalyn Belsha is a senior national education reporter based in Chicago. Contact her at [email protected].

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