At 6:00 a.m. when most kids are just waking up for school, the doors of Monarch School open so their homeless students can come in for a hot shower and breakfast before classes begin.
Nestled on the outskirts of downtown San Diego, Monarch School is the only public K-12 school in the U.S. that exclusively services the homeless youth population. Since most homeless shelters only open their doors to provide a safe place to rest for the night, those who are displaced have no place to go during the day.
“It’s sort of the ignored populations. When folks think about homelessness, they think about veterans or they think about individuals on the street,” says Monarch CEO Erin Spiewak who works alongside the school principal and leads fundraising efforts. “They don’t think about children. They don’t think about families.”
In her 18 years at Monarch School, Spiewak has seen a slew of students come and go, but only 77 have graduated – students can be enrolled at the school anywhere from two to three weeks, to several years until the families’ housing situations have stabilized. For this transient population, the average student is enrolled for about 11 months.
Without a permanent address, it was difficult for Athina Reyes, 17, and her siblings to enroll in a school until they found Monarch. “I don’t like being in shelters, because I get anxiety. I just don’t like being around a lot of people.” Now a 17-year-old high school senior at Monarch, Reyes has gone from shelters to motels, and friends’ couches after her father was deported to Mexico.
Her mother continues to struggle to make ends meet and secure stable housing in the U.S., and goes back and forth across the border as a U.S. citizen as she tends to her youngest child who is unable to walk. As they await affordable housing lotteries to open up, Reyes and her 15-year-old sister, get up at 4 a.m. to make the two-hour journey to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico. Together they cross the border in a long pedestrian line, then transfer to a trolley, and finally walk the rest of the way to school.
Once at school, Reyes does whatever she can to stay positive and turns to writing lyrics as a creative outlet. “When I hear something that's going to get me sad, I go to writing right away, or I just do whatever to keep my mind off that,” she said. Her internship coordinator, Michael Gaulden, has helped Reyes identify her love of writing music.
Because Gaulden has lived through homelessness as a teenager himself, he has an intimate understanding of the emotional, social, and academic impact homelessness has on kids.
“When you’re below the poverty level and have to work your way up to become poor right, it’s crazy. It's a trap that many people do not escape. It perpetuates, it's generational, I’d almost say it's hereditary,” Gaulden tells Yahoo Finance. “We start with zero, less than zero. So how do you take zero and build upon that? How do you build something from nothing? It's impossible.”
To give the kids every advantage they can possibly have to break the cycle of homelessness for their families, Gaulden partners with small businesses in San Diego county to coordinate internships for the students at Monarch School who sign up. “If you give them some resources while helping them goal set for a brighter future you're handling short-term goals. And each short-term goal will get you to that long-term goal,” says Gaulden.
The internship program also teaches the kids how to allocate money they’ve earned. Reyes, now onto her third internship program, has been able to save $160: “I get an advantage because it looks good on my resume and I get more experience. I'm learning about budgeting and putting my money somewhere safe, in a bank.”
But she’s only 1 among 23,000 homeless youth in San Diego. In the U.S., there are one or two million students without a home, according to the National Center for Education Statistics -- and for women, minorities and children, that number is rising. And in 28 states, unaccompanied youth comprise 10% or more of the total population of students identified as experiencing homelessness, per the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“Homeless youth hasn’t been the focus of a lot of the homeless outreach efforts. Because of that, the population has continued to grow,” Spiewak tells Yahoo Finance. “For a lot of our students who are in families who had huge turmoil in the job market, stability and work wasn’t something that they had necessarily been exposed to.”
Focusing specifically on families and children has proven to make an impact: over a quarter of those who have graduated Monarch School are employed, more than half are enrolled in college. And efforts to share this learning for other school districts are ongoing.
“We can't grow the number of students we serve here, we’re thinking about and looking at how we can help support those other public schools that are serving homeless youth, says Spiewak. “When we discover what works very well with this population, we can share that with others.”
Jeanie Ahn is a senior reporter and producer at Yahoo Finance, covering personal finance and women in business. Follow her on Twitter @jeanie531.