When Sam Espinosa was a kid, it took a while for Austin Independent School District to learn he was homeless.
“My mom is a fairly private person – she was never one to let anyone else into, you know, what we were going through,” Espinosa says.
So, Sam and his five siblings became fairly good at pretending they had a place to live.
“I didn’t want it to be something that was always an issue – that people pitied me for – so, it was challenging because I think as a younger kid you always want to fit in and you want to have the things that your friends have and do the things that your friends do,” he says. “And for me, that wasn’t always a reality. People couldn’t come and stay at my house for the night. I really couldn’t have them give me a ride home. So, if I knew someone wanted to come over or I might need a ride somewhere I’d kind of have an excuse ready so they could drop me off … ‘near the house,” so I just didn’t get caught off guard with it.”
All that pretending takes a toll on a child’s learning abilities. Doing homework by candlelight, going to sleep extremely late because there’s no place for you, waking up at odd hours because you’re sleeping somewhere you’re not supposed to, trying to keep up with your hygiene.
But, how can school officials help if they don’t know?
Patrick Lopez with the Texas Homeless Education Office in Austin says he understands why parents and kids may not want to disclose their situation.
“They’re afraid that it’s going to cause them legal problems or that CPS is gonna be involved, you know, any number of things,” Lopez says.
But, there is a federal law that protects the rights of homeless students – it’s called the McKinney-Vento Act.
“The McKinney Act itself made it the onerous of districts to be proactive,” he says. “The districts have to identify the homeless students.”
In the 1980s, when McKinney-Vento went into effect, districts in Texas used a number of tools to identify homeless students. But data was all over the place. So, in 2012 they decided to unify the way they collect data. They noticed a trend – the numbers are steadily increasing.
For example, Dallas Independent School District: Mark Pierce with the district’s Homeless Education Program says calls to their office went from yearly to weekly.
“Historically we used to receive between five to 10 calls per year about teenagers in the high school without any place to go that night,” Pierce says. “And this last year – 2015 to 2016 – we received on average three calls per week.”
Anecdotal data? Sure, but it paints a picture. From 2012 (when Texas school districts became stricter with the numbers) to 2014 (the latest set of available numbers) there was a statewide increase of 13,000 homeless students.
Lopez says homelessness can be tied to the lack of affordable housing, natural disasters, and the boom-and-bust cycles of energy towns. Whatever the circumstances, school districts want students to know it is possible to continue their education. And Espinosa wants them to know it is worth it.
“On those tough days when things seemed nearly impossible – you found a way – because I knew that ‘Hey, this isn’t going to beat me,'” Espinosa says. “After everything that we’ve gone through, it isn’t electricity that’s going to keep me from getting an A.”
After years of homelessness, Espinosa went on to get a degree from Yale. He was speaking to me from a tower in New York City where he now works for a tech start-up.