Thousands of Bay Area students struggle to balance homelessness, education

Rudy Hurtado is one of San Francisco's "hidden homeless." He came to the U.S. from El Salvador four years ago, at the age of 16, and is still struggling to find a stable home. Now a 20-year-old sophomore at San Francisco State University, he said one of the hardest parts of being homeless was when he was in high school: he felt very alone. 

"I wouldn't share, 'Hey, I'm homeless! Who else is homeless in here?" said Hurtado. 

Hurtado kept to himself while he lived with relatives and went to high school. Then he said things "got bad," and he moved out. A family  acquaintance said he could live in the office of his auto body shop in San Bruno, so for months, Hurtado slept on two pieces of foam pushed together to make a bed on the office floor. He only had access to a small sink and toilet. The owner of a nearby taqueria sometimes let Hurtado use the shower there. Hurtado said at one point, he went a month without taking a shower. All while attending George Washington High School in San Francisco.

"I saw a lot of people mingling, planning what to do after school, playing some sports," he said. "I wasn't comfortable with that. I knew that wasn't my case." 

When asked if he felt "alone," Hurtado said: "I felt like I was the only one. I was trying to seem happy, but I don't know if there were other people too who were passing through my same situation."

The numbers show Hurtado was not alone, however, as student in the Bay Area struggling with homelessness.

San Francisco Unified -- the largest school district in the Bay Area – tells KTVU that at any time it estimates there are between 1,800 and 2,300 homeless students out of a student body, of just 54,063 students. For comparison: in Seattle - a district of about the same size - 2,663 students identified as homeless at the end of the last school year. And in Los Angeles -- the largest school district in the state -- out of 734,641 students, 19,526 children experienced homelessness during the last school year.

To qualify as "homeless" a student doesn't have to be sleeping on the streets. School district officials in San Francisco say any student who lacks a "fixed, regular and appropriate nighttime residence" is considered homeless, and qualifies for help. They also say, on the whole, homeless students tend to take school very seriously, knowing it's their best chance at making a better life.

“A lot of our children are living in a single-room occupancy hotel in Chinatown or the Tenderloin,” said Terri Gee, the coordinator of programs for homeless students in the San Francisco Unified School District. “Some families are living in campers. We have families living in cars." Gee said there is at least one homeless student at each school in SFUSD. 

And life for these students can be complicated. Hurtado learned English and got straight As in high school, all while hiding the fact he was homeless. Every day, he'd wake up at 4:30 a.m. to take the bus to school. He was often there before the teachers arrived, and would sleep in the hallway if he could. 

After going to class all day, Hurtado would go straight back to the auto body shop where he lived and he would work there until midnight. "I wouldn't have time to do homework or study," said Hurtado, "I would fall asleep during tests. My teachers would wake me up and I'd say 'I'm so sorry'."

Finally, a psychology teacher at George Washington High asked Hurtado if he was ok and the teenager let his "secret" spill out. The next day, he was called to the school's wellness center, and counselors helped place him in an emergency shelter. He went from there to transitional housing, and is hoping to find a subsidized apartment soon while he earns his degree. Thanks to scholarships and grants, he doesn't have to pay for college.

Hurtado said his mother always told him he had to "be better" than she was. He hasn't seen her since the day he left El Salvador years ago. 

"I would love to see her," Hurtado said, "Hug her, feel the sense of your own mom, the smell of your own mom, smell her hair, and that sense of home and safeness, I miss that. I miss my Mom."