ALAMEDA -- More than 300 homeless students in preschool through adult school are enrolled in the Alameda Unified School District.
"Some families live in shelters such as Alameda Point Collaborative transitional housing or Operation Dignity which provides veterans with housing," said Vickie Smith, who grew up in Alameda and works in Family Support Services at AUSD.
"Others live in hotels or motels, some are 'couch surfers,' moving from home to home, some end up in foster care, while others are 'unsheltered,' living in cars, parks and on the streets, " she said.
Smith spreads the word at schools and shelters that, by law, all children have the right to go to school, even if they are homeless.
"I put up posters that let people know about the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which provides federal funds for homeless programs, including education," said Smith, who holds a teaching credential in parent education from San Jose State University. "It's a whole different story when people realize that this isn't just a program, it's a law."
The law provides that children and youth in homeless situations have the right to go to school even if they can't provide proof of residence, immunization records and other such documents that schools normally require for enrollment.
"We also provide services that they might not have, such as a bus pass so they can get to school and school supplies," Smith said. "They need equal access to go to school just like anyone else."
School supplies include a new backpack filled with pens and pencils, binders, a calculator -- the packs are funded by a charitable organization called "K to College," and prisoners at Folsom State Prison stuff the packs.
"I also make sure that the children get a free lunch," Smith said. "And if a student wants to enroll in an extracurricular activity, I work with after-school programs and the Boys and Girls Club to see if I can get the charges waived."
Smith also helps families get signed up with Encore Clinic at Children's Hospital Oakland, which serves children who are homeless or in transitional housing. Smith, who has been the McKinney-Vento liaison for the school district since 2005, said the main thing is not to be judgmental.
"Some think that people choose to be homeless, but that's just not true," Smith said. "They are good people who work hard. But it just takes one thing -- whether it's a domestic violence situation, foreclosure or a rent increase. You can be on your feet one minute and then just a single thing can take you down."
Smith, 61, grew up in the estuary projects on the west side of the Island, one of six children.
"We didn't have a lot, so I understand what it is to come from hardship," said Smith, whose father was in the Navy.
She attended John Muir Elementary through sixth grade, when it was shut down; Longfellow Elementary; and graduated from Encinal High School.
She's been an activist and member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) since high school.
"When I was young and living in the projects, the city let them get run down," Smith said. "I remember sleeping in Franklin Park with a lot of other families and singing civil rights songs in an effort to get the city to fix the housing."
She says the "sleep-in" worked.
In 1969, when Smith was a student at Encinal High, she said the African-American students asked the school to start a black history and ethnic studies program, as well as an African-American student union.
"When the school said 'no,' the African-American students staged a walkout," Smith recalled.
By the end of the year, the school had complied with the students' requests, and also hired two African-American teachers.
"From then, I started fighting on issues," Smith said.
She founded a group called Renewed HOPE (Housing Opportunities Provided Equally) that helped African-American families get affordable housing in Alameda.
"Our goal was to save low and affordable housing in the West End -- or at least to include affordable housing in the city's redevelopment plans," Smith said.
In 2002, as one of 10 Alameda "heroes," Smith helped land a $300,000 Koshland Grant from The San Francisco Foundation to invest in Alameda Point.
"For example, we gave a grant to a lady on the base who was bringing kids to her house to watch movies or get something to eat," Smith said. "The grant paid for the movies and food."
Smith also cofounded the citywide Coalition of Alamedans for Racial Equality (CARE) in 1992, helped launch Team Diversity in Alameda schools during the 1990s and worked with the Alameda Family Literacy Program.
In the future, Smith would like to initiate more classes for parents.
"I'd like to see more parents share their experiences and expertise and learn to use tools that could help them get involved with organizations such as PTA and School Site Council, so that they have a voice at the table," Smith said.
To learn more about the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act or to sign up, contact Vickie Smith at 510-748-4012 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Family Support Services is at 1900 Third St., Room 28, Alameda.