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Project Rest, funding to help unhoused families keep their children in school, is running out

Sergio Belmonte loves to play with his young sons, Michael, 6, and Jordan, 4.

“Sometimes they’ll tell me, 'Let’s play tag, you want to play tag?' I’m all ‘sure, let’s go play,'" Belmonte said.

Their game of tag is often on the playground of the San Diego Rescue Mission. The downtown shelter has been home for the single father and his children since just before Christmas.

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Belmonte said, “I have seen a drastic improvement in my boys. They're a lot happier. They found friends over here that they can play with, and especially at school.”

Their school is Washington Elementary in the nearby Little Italy neighborhood. That is where Belmonte learned about Project Rest, a program provided through the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE). SDCOE administers federal pandemic money through vouchers that unhoused families can use for an emergency hotel stay.

In the past two years, the program has provided rest and relief to 1,400 families, offering short stays at Motel 6 under a contract the national chain has with the county.

It was just enough to buy Sergio and his sons time to get into the San Diego Rescue Mission.

Sergio Belmonte is a single parent living with his two sons at the San Diego Rescue Mission. They used the Project Rest program for temporary housing in December as a first step in their journey to finding their own home in the next year, San Diego, Calif., January 31, 2024
M.G. Perez
/
KPBS
Sergio Belmonte is a single parent living with his two sons at the San Diego Rescue Mission. They used the Project Rest program for temporary housing in December as a first step in their journey to finding their own home in the next year, San Diego, Calif., January 31, 2024

“What we really do is we focus on relationships and having a support network," said Paul Armstrong, vice president of programs at the mission. “We know that homelessness is complex. So, we want to come alongside people and learn what happened. (We) find out what those issues of the heart are, so we can help address them.” 

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The San Diego Rescue Mission partners with the San Diego Unified School District in bridging the gap between homelessness and permanent housing, to keep students in class and away from chronic absences. Right now, there are 8,000 children in the district identified as experiencing housing insecurity.

Kristy Drake is a resource teacher for the Office of Children and Youth in Transition. She is fighting for funding that will run out by the end of the year.

“The biggest thing we need is advocacy for this funding to continue, and for people to understand that homeless education is very different from the politics of homelessness," Drake said.

Michael Belmonte, 6, and his brother Jordan, 4, play in the sand box at the San Diego Rescue Mission, San Diego, Calif., January 31, 2024
M.G. Perez
/
KPBS
Michael Belmonte, 6, and his brother Jordan, 4, play in the sand box at the San Diego Rescue Mission, San Diego, Calif., January 31, 2024

SDCOE works with all 42 local school districts and every Motel 6 near the Mexican border to Oceanside.

The Chula Vista location has provided housing for many families with children in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which has a caseload of 600 unhoused students.

“It’s a confusing process with a lot of public assistance programs. So we want to be a helpful hand in the school district," said Julia Sutton, a member of the district’s team of social workers who meet families where they are.

“They want their children to be successful academically. That is very important to them. But we know that basic needs make that hard sometimes. We just want to partner with families, and we just want to support them in getting to what they need," Sutton said.

The Motel 6 in Chula Vista is one of the chain's locations offering temporary housing to families through Project Rest, Chula Vista, Calif., January 31, 2024
M.G. Perez
/
KPBS
The Motel 6 in Chula Vista is one of the chain's locations offering temporary housing to families through Project Rest, Chula Vista, Calif., January 31, 2024
"I want to be a firefighter or a police officer (when I grow up) because I want to do good deeds and help people.” 

Michael Belmonte, 6, a student at Washington Elementary School

Sergio Belmonte hopes to find a job and a permanent home for his family this year, so they can move from the shelter.

His sons also like to play in the sandbox where they are happy and hopeful for their future.

When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Michael said, "Ummm ... a firefighter or a police officer, because I want to do good deeds and help people.” 

Their father is hopeful, too.

“(I told them) don’t let nobody discourage you. If you want to do something in your life, go ahead. Don't let nothing stop you. The only person that can stop you is yourself, " Belmonte said.

As a former special education teacher, I look forward to connecting with you and reporting on stories that often go underreported in education. #WeAreBetterTogether
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