Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oakland Unified School District has seen an alarming spike in the number of unhoused students in the school system who deal with a host of challenges far beyond what most children face.
An East Bay father and his two sons recently decided they wanted to speak openly about their situation to bring their struggle to light.
David Mestas and his two sons are currently living at the East Oakland Community Project Shelter.
"This is home," said Mestas. "We get a hot breakfast, lunch and hot dinner."
But that hasn't always been the case, especially during the pandemic.
"My son missed one year of school, and our days consisted of us trying to find somewhere to sleep and eat," Mestas remembered. "We were living out of a car and hotel."
They are part of a group hidden in plain sight. The number of homeless students attending Oakland Unified schools grew nearly 70% percent over the last three years. That number rose to 1,780 students in 2023. Prior to the pandemic, the numbers hovered around 1,000.
"For a while, I felt like we lived in the shadows. Everyone [was] in color and we lived in black and white in the hidden part of it," Mestas said. " We stayed inside. It was embarrassing."
Trish Anderson runs the McKinney-Vento Homeless Youth Education Program for Oakland Unified. It provides resources to the unhoused students.
"A lot of our families are hidden. They are the hidden homeless. A lot of kids don't want to be outed," said Anderson. Her office staff also includes three case managers and an academic counselor. Binders represent hundreds of unhoused families broken into tiers.
"Tier 3 is our most at risk. They are usually in a hotel, motel, in a car or encampment or bouncing around from place to place," said Anderson. "They are most at risk. We are hovering around 100 to 200 families in Tier 3.
Mestas and his sons are Tier 3. At the McKinney Vento office, families can come and get snacks, clothes and shoes.
"Everything they need to go to school," said Anderson. "We try to provide as much as possible."
Anderson says her goal is to remove barriers for children to access an education. She said they provide school supplies, glasses to read, toiletries and help families replace birth certificates lost during all of their moves. The office removes hurdles for families like Mestas and his sons, who face even bigger challenges outside the classroom.
But at the East Oakland Community Project shelter, they are trying their best to get back on track.
"I call it being resilient. This is home for thirteen months. We share a room and four bunks with the boys," said Mestas.
When asked if the teachers were aware some of their students are currently homeless, Anderson replied, "So, some of the teachers know because it is based on relationships. And sometimes their kids will share that they are homeless. But we let the kid do that. We don't out."
Kim Neal is an academic counselor who makes personal visits to students in the district.
"This is the case I carry around with me and besides my phone I have bus tickets which are really important for transportation," said Neal."
If they have an AC Transit bus pass, they can get to school and get home. Transportation to and from school can be an issue.
Anderson says homeless numbers have continued to rise, especially after the last eviction moratorium ended. With shelters at capacity, she says the method for scoring families to be placed in shelters needs to change.
"What is missing is the kids," explained Anderson. "There is no question about the kids. They don't ask if the kid is autistic or medically fragile. It is not part of the score that gets families into shelters."
Those working to help these homeless students say it is time to close the gaps and focus on homelessness as it relates to kids as well.
"I've got zero assignments missing," David's son told KPIX, saying he is doing his best under the circumstances.
David Mestas said he and his boys are all making steady progress as a family.
When asked what his dream was for his sons, he said, "To not be in this way and to not make this home. To have a regular home and to not fall into where we are. Hopefully this is a lesson to them to do whatever it takes to move forward."
People who want to help the OUSD McKinney-Vento Homeless Youth Education Program in its mission to support to unsheltered students and their families can make an online donation here.
The program is also accepting warm clothes including coats, hats, scarves and gloves. Clothing donations can be dropped off at the OUSD Welcome Center located at 746 Grand Avenue in Oakland. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Youth Education Program office is in Portable A.
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