How California Can Better Serve Homeless Students
This article was produced in partnership with the California Health Report, The Center for Public Integrity, The Seattle Times, Street Sense Media, and WAMU/DCist.
On a sunny morning in March 2014, Yenni Rivera picked up her infant and stepped outside her Long Beach home. She would not be going back. With the help of family members and her best friend, she loaded a few cardboard boxes into the back of her parents’ car. Inside the boxes was everything she now owned. In her arms was her reason for leaving and her hope for the future.
Luke Rivera was 1 year old. And he and Yenni Rivera were now homeless.
But homeless was better than captive in an abusive, violent home. Rivera knew it was the right decision—and a life-or-death decision—to leave. What she didn’t know was how long it would take to find a home again.
While their names lingered on waitlists for shelter and child care, Rivera and Luke slept on her parents’ couch. Five years passed. No affordable housing opened.
“I know that my son suffered,” Rivera said. “I was having PTSD and anxiety, and as I was feeling that, I started seeing the signs” that Luke was negatively impacted too, she added.
According to experts on child homelessness, almost all children who experience housing insecurity also experience trauma because of the stress and instability of their situation. California and the federal government recognize this and require schools to provide these children with additional support, such as free transportation, help remaining enrolled in the same school they’re accustomed to, tutoring, school supplies, and referrals to social services. But experts believe tens of thousands of California children experiencing homelessness fall through the cracks in the system and receive little to no additional help from their schools.
Some schools don’t do enough to help these students because staff are stretched thin, they lack funding to provide students with what they need, or they’re not aware that students are entitled to these resources. Because a disproportionate number of these students are children of color, this failure is likely perpetuating and even exacerbating academic achievement gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups.
“It’s cumulative disadvantage playing out in different ways,” said Joseph Bishop, director for the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, explaining the disproportionate number of homeless students who are Black and Latino. “(Access to) jobs, health care, all these factors are fueling these issues. It’s structural, systemic racism playing out in different ways, and it manifests itself in the homelessness crisis.”
Advocates who work with children experiencing homelessness say there are a number of steps California can take to better help these families. For one, school administrators and county offices of education can better train teachers and staff to recognize signs that students may be homeless and to communicate sensitively with families, letting them know that the information they share is confidential. Schools should also reach out to their communities to make families aware of the resources available to students experiencing homelessness and create partnerships with social services, shelters, and community organizations to reach families in need and link them to additional support. And the federal and state governments should provide more dedicated funding to help schools assist students experiencing homelessness.
Families Squeezed by California’s Cost of Living
Research shows that children experiencing homelessness are twice as likely as their peers to get sick, have a learning disability, and go hungry, and three times as likely to suffer emotional and behavioral problems. They’re also more likely to drop out of school, repeat a grade, and not graduate from high school. In addition to the trauma of homelessness, many of these children have experienced other difficult life events, such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, extreme poverty, or exposure to a family member with addiction or mental health problems. As a result, these children often need a variety of supports to help them succeed in school.
Yet according to research by the Center for Public Integrity, many school districts in California and across the nation are failing to identify all the students experiencing homelessness in their care. Experts on child homelessness say the percentage of children experiencing homelessness in any given school or district will typically amount to between 5% and 10% of children who qualify for free and reduced lunches—an indication of economic disadvantage. Yet in California, more than 400 school districts reported lower homeless enrollment than even the 5% benchmark during the 2018 to 2019 school year. That’s about two of every five districts in the state, according to an analysis of federal data by the Center for Public Integrity.
A state audit of five school districts and one charter school released in 2019, meanwhile, found that four of the six had only identified 3% of economically disadvantaged students as homeless, and that none was adequately training staff on how to identify students experiencing homelessness or on schools’ legal requirements to assist them. The auditor concluded that the districts “could do more to identify and support these youth, and that [the California Department of Education] has provided inadequate oversight of the State’s homeless education program.”
The situation does not appear to have improved since then. California Department of Education numbers show that the number of students experiencing homelessness in public and charter schools in the state dropped by around 36,000 students during the first two years of the pandemic. Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education, said some of this decline may reflect a drop in school enrollment in California overall between 2019 and 2022. But he and other experts agree the drop is likely also the result of greater difficulties schools had identifying and tracking students experiencing homelessness as families moved or lost housing and schools shifted to online learning.
“I don’t think anybody thinks homelessness actually decreased for students during the pandemic,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a homeless advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. “And, of course, things now are very, very concerning, particularly in California, in terms of cost of living and housing costs and all the things that go along with that, and other issues—domestic violence, for example, natural disasters, wildfires … immigration.”
School officials and advocates for homeless children said they are hopeful that a new California law requiring all districts to survey families to identify those experiencing homelessness using a standardized questionnaire will increase the rate of identification in the state. A historic influx of $100 million to California from the 2021 American Rescue Plan that’s now starting to reach school districts is also expected to significantly boost their ability to identify, enroll, and support the participation of children and youth experiencing homelessness. However, advocates worry this one-time funding won’t be enough to sustain improvements over the long term, and argue that policymakers, school officials, and local stakeholders must do more to ensure all students experiencing homelessness are identified and receive the help they need.
California has the highest homeless population in the country. Almost one out of every five children experiencing homelessness in the United States resides in California. Students experiencing homelessness made up almost 4% of California’s kindergarten through 12th grade students during the 2020 to 2021 school year—more than 183,000 students total, according to the California Department of Education. Most experts believe that’s a significant undercount.
Latino and African American students are disproportionately represented among students experiencing homelessness, making up 74% and 7% of homeless students, respectively, compared with 55% and 5% of the general kindergarten through 12th grade population. White and Asian students are underrepresented. Researchers believe these differences in child homelessness rates reflect long-standing discrimination and inequalities in housing, criminal justice, child welfare, and education.
A federal law, known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, defines homelessness among school-age children more broadly than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which counts homelessness in the general population. Under McKinney-Vento, children and youth are considered homeless if they sleep in a homeless shelter, motel or hotel, car, public space, abandoned building, or any other type of impermanent or substandard accommodation, and also if they are sharing housing with other people due to loss of housing or economic hardship. In California, most students experiencing homelessness fall into this last category. According to the most recent data, 85% live doubled up with other families or relatives.
For Luke and Yenni Rivera, living this way was traumatic. They slept on a couch in the living room of Rivera’s parents’ home, which meant they had no privacy or space of their own. It was cramped and uncomfortable, Rivera said. Luke grew up feeling different from other kids because he didn’t have his own home, bed, or room. Living in such close quarters also made it hard for Yenni Rivera to shield him from the emotional challenges she was facing.
“I was broken for a long time,” she said. “He would see a parent that would go to sleep crying.”
In preschool and kindergarten, Luke’s teachers noticed that he would become anxious in large groups. He wouldn’t answer questions or participate in classroom activities. At first, the teachers thought the problem might be a learning disability. But after an evaluation at his preschool, school officials determined that Luke had an anxiety disorder called selective mutism, which his pediatrician determined was most likely caused by the trauma he’d endured from experiencing homelessness and witnessing domestic violence.
Chynna Lloyd, 23, lived in a domestic violence shelter with her mother between the ages of 9 and 11 in Los Angeles. She said she had to move schools several times, which put her behind, and she felt left out around other children because she couldn’t tell anyone where her family lived for safety reasons and wasn’t allowed to have friends over to play. She also felt embarrassed because her family depended on hand-me-downs and her clothes and shoes didn’t fit her properly.
“It affected me a lot,” she said of experiencing homelessness. “It’s not a comfortable feeling.”
McKinney-Vento requires school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education to keep track of the number of students experiencing homelessness in their school or district and remove barriers that prevent these students from attending and succeeding in school. The supports can include providing free transportation to and from where the student is staying, allowing them to stay enrolled in the school they were at before they became homeless, providing tutoring and a safe place to do homework, offering school supplies, and referring families to outside services, such as counseling and housing assistance.
Even when students are identified as experiencing homelessness, some schools aren’t doing enough to help them, because staff in charge of coordinating services for them don’t have enough funding, time, or community connections to provide them with what they need, advocates said.
Overwhelmed Liaisons, Reticent Families
Before a school district can help a student experiencing homelessness, they need to know about them. Finding out can be challenging, said Duffield with SchoolHouse Connection. Some families and children don’t want to tell the school about their situation because of stigma, or because they fear it could lead to child protective services or immigration authorities getting involved. Others, such as those living with relatives or other families, may not realize they qualify as homeless or that their child has the right to receive support.
Duffield said it’s critical for schools to be discreet when asking families and students about homelessness and make it clear they are asking in order to offer services and support, not to report them to outside authorities. Federal law prohibits schools from asking students or their parents about immigration status, and even if a school does know that a student or parent is undocumented, they can only share that information with authorities under exceptional circumstances, such as a court order. Homelessness is also not considered, in and of itself, abuse and neglect, and therefore is not grounds for reporting a student or parent to CPS or law enforcement, Duffield said.
Meanwhile, every public school district, county office of education, and charter school in California is required to have a homeless liaison, a person responsible for identifying students experiencing homelessness and coordinating support for them. But these liaisons frequently have many other responsibilities as well, such as supporting foster, migrant, and special-needs children, leaving them stretched thin, Duffield said.
Sinéad Chilton, chief development and marketing officer with School on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers to provide homework help to homeless children in Southern California, said another problem she’s encountered is that homeless liaisons as well as teachers often don’t speak Spanish, even in districts with large Spanish-speaking populations. That makes it hard for volunteers and the families they work with to communicate with school personnel and advocate for their children, she said.
Even when students are identified as homeless, many schools lack the resources needed to support them, Duffield said. Until recently, only about 100 local education agencies in the state received federal McKinney-Vento funds to identify and support students experiencing homelessness. An influx of funding under the American Rescue Plan will now provide 1,181 local education agencies with the funding. In the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year, California received $11.3 million in federal funds for this purpose. Under the American Rescue Plan, it’s set to receive almost $99 million.
Yenni Rivera said she told her son’s preschool and kindergarten that she and Luke were homeless. A school counselor worked with her to get him some extra support at school, but there were no standards for helping children with learning challenges related to homelessness, so they had to get creative. Luke was classified as an English learner so he would receive small-group instruction, which he found less intimidating, even though English is his first language. And a teacher aide recommended he repeat kindergarten so he could build his confidence, and because he wasn’t passing a standardized test. His mother found him a therapist herself through a local domestic violence crisis center.
Rivera said she’s frustrated that she had to do much of the legwork to make sure her son got the support he needed at school, even though she was dealing with trauma herself. She said she wishes schools had clear, standardized guidelines on how to support students experiencing homelessness, and that all teachers were trained to recognize signs of trauma.
“I’m thankful that I’m educated, that I saw those signs and I was able to push for treatment for my child,” she said. “But many families are not even aware they need that help.”
Language is also a barrier for many families, given that the largest population of students experiencing homelessness are Latino, yet school liaisons and teachers don’t always speak Spanish. A significant proportion of California’s Latino population also speaks Indigenous languages, which are even less likely to be spoken by school personnel.
Changes Rolling Out
In January, California began requiring school districts and county offices of education to distribute a standardized housing questionnaire annually to all families. Some districts previously did this, but it wasn’t mandated. The form asks families to identify the type of housing situation they are in, and informs them that the information will only be shared with relevant school staff and that students who are homeless have certain rights.
Susie Terry, coordinator of homeless education services at the San Diego Office of Education, said the change is already increasing the identification of students experiencing homelessness among the 43 school districts and over 100 charter schools that she supports.
Meanwhile, the American Rescue Plan funds have allowed her to expand outreach and support to students experiencing homelessness and their families. She was able to hire a project specialist to visit homeless and domestic violence shelters around the county and meet with the families of students to inform them of their rights and answer questions. She’s also established a hotel voucher program to help homeless families in need get a place to stay while they wait to secure more stable housing. Families are referred to the program daily, she said.
“This is money that we always needed, even before the pandemic,” she said. “Homeless education programs are underfunded in general. Having this funding has allowed me to expand my reach and my work in ways I’ve wanted to for a very long time.” She said she and other liaisons across the state are hoping that Congress will renew the funding after the American Rescue Plan dollars run out in 2025.
Bishop at UCLA said liaisons can’t be expected to do all the work, however. All school staff could be trained to recognize signs that a student may be experiencing homelessness and understand the definition of homelessness for students, as could other government, health, and community officials who interact with families and children.
“The onus for [dealing with] this crisis cannot fall on one person,” he said, referring to homeless liaisons. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Schools should face greater consequences if they don’t adequately report homelessness numbers, Bishop added. Currently, the California Department of Education—which is supposed to ensure schools properly report homelessness numbers—can face compliance findings from the federal government for failing to adhere to McKinney-Vento Act provisions, which could put it at risk of losing federal funds. Additionally, families and youth can, and have, sued school districts for failing to identify them as experiencing homelessness.
For Luke Rivera, now 9, things are looking up. He and his mother now have their own apartment in South Los Angeles. Luke has his own bed and a desk where he can do his homework. He’s become more confident and less anxious. He’s no longer afraid to speak up in class. Recently, his mother learned from the school that her once painfully shy son stood up for himself against another student who was bullying him. It gave her hope, both for him and for other children who’ve experienced similar challenges.
“It took four or five years … but it’s such a change from the child I had to go defend to the child who defends himself,” she said. “It’s all connected to him having his own bed, his own space, building the confidence, having the extra support at school over the years.”
Yenni Rivera now advocates for other families experiencing homelessness in her role as a family system coordinator for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. She worries about other students experiencing homelessness like she and Luke did, but whose parents don’t have the ability to find help and push for interventions. That’s especially a concern as homelessness increases in Los Angeles County and in other parts of the state in the wake of the pandemic and the end of the county’s eviction moratorium looms at the end of this year. The City of Los Angeles recently voted to end its eviction freeze starting Feb. 1, 2023. A statewide eviction moratorium ended in July.
“We’re going to see a huge jump in those children who had a home, who didn’t know what [homelessness] felt like, suddenly now feeling that,” she said. “Schools need to think ahead.”
Students and their families who are experiencing homelessness can contact their local school district or county homeless liaison coordinator (teachers and staff members should know who this person is, and the contact person is often listed on district and county office of education websites).
- To get information and referrals to services for homeless youth and families in your area, dial the United Way helpline, 211.
- If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and referrals, or text “START” to 88788.
- For more information about School on Wheels or to volunteer, visit the School on Wheels website.
Claudia Boyd-Barrett is a longtime journalist based in southern California. She writes on topics related to health care, social justice, and maternal and child well-being. Her investigative stories on access to mental health care have resulted in legislative and policy changes.