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Homeless student population growing

The state's 11th largest school district, by enrollment, is in northeast Sacramento County. Some 3,400 students there were identified last year as homeless, and that number is on track to increase this year.

Thousands of children in the Sacramento area are currently experiencing homelessness.

It's not an easy subject, but it is a sad reality in our communities.

School districts count "homeless" as any student without adequate housing. That includes those living in motels, couch surfing, and doubling up with another family under one roof.

Our 10 Words team went into the community where many of you told us homelessness is one of your top concerns.

Insufficient housing impacts kids in the classroom, too. Melanie Barbeau works as a homeless student liaison at the San Juan Unified School District.

"We cannot allow all these children to be living in situations that are really and truly so difficult and makes their education more difficult," said Barbeau.

Last school year, San Juan Unified identified some 3,400 homeless students. The district covers most communities in northeast Sacramento County, including Arden-Arcade, Carmichael, Orangevale, Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks. It's the state's 11th largest public school district, by enrollment, and nearly seven percent of its students were counted as homeless last year.

Matthaja Taylor is one of them. She's a sixth grader at Encina Preparatory High School and lived this fall with her family of nine in one motel room.

"It's like being crowded a lot and sleeping in the bed with your sisters," she told ABC10, with her mother sitting by her side. "I sit on the bed when they're playing outside and just study."

RELATED: Homeless family of 9 looking for place to live

The number of San Juan Unified students experiencing homelessness is on track to be higher this school year -- and higher than the district may ever know.

Ardi Ferris is another homeless student liaison for San Juan Unified.

"How many people lose their houses, double up, have to go into hotels or motels temporarily that we never hear about?" Ferris said. "With the housing the way it is, it's entirely possible that there are many, many students that we haven't been able to identify. And there are some people who don't want to be identified because of the stigma."

Kei Tilander is a Student Intervention Teacher at San Juan High School. She said homeless students experience things called ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences.

"Experiencing any kind of trauma - it could be physical abuse, sexual abuse. It could be poverty, it could be homelessness," Tilander explained. "The more ACEs that a child experiences, then we start to see sometimes those challenging behaviors, if they're not met with the resiliency factors, right? A caring adult, some stability in their basic needs, things like that."

She said people can help by avoiding using labels like "at risk" or "challenging kids" when talking about students who exhibit some behavioral challenges.

"Instead of saying, you know, 'What's wrong with you?' We need to really be looking at kids and saying, 'What happened to you? What's going on?'...and give them a safe place," Tilander said. "Because they are just a wealth of gifts and they are articulate and they are so caring...We do a disservice to our kids when we see them through a deficit lens, versus seeing them through what they're capable of."

Ferris agrees, too.

"The kids are so strong and they're so positive, and they don't complain," she said. "They have this desire to go into the future and be social workers and teachers and nurses and doctors and psychologists and historians. They have such huge interests, but one of the things they need is to have a place where they can get that dream."

While each kid needs a different approach, Tilander said, "I'm not going to lower my expectations and insult them, because I know they're capable of reaching it...And when you offer that, it's amazing what they'll produce."

Without a home does not mean without a future.

RELATED: Sacramento's affordable housing, homelessness issues tackled at summit

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