Number of homeless students increasing

September 10, 2014

More than 269,000 California public school students – about 4 percent of all students, double the national average – don’t have a consistent place to call home at night, according to a state report released Wednesday. More than half of these homeless students are in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade.

They are doubled up with friends or relatives, living in motels or shelters, or sleeping in cars or on the ground in parks. In the aftermath of the economic recession and with housing prices high, their numbers are rising, the report found. In addition, an unspecified amount of the increase is due to more accurate data reporting, the report said.

Although many homeless students, despite their difficulties, manage to thrive academically, they are in need of academic, emotional and health care support at school, according to “California’s Homeless Students: A Growing Population,” a report from the California Homeless Youth Project, an initiative of the state-run California Research Bureau. The data in the report were released in partnership with, a database operated by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.

“For many of these students, school is their primary safety net or their only safety net,” said Patricia Julianelle of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

“For many of these students, school is their primary safety net or their only safety net,” Patricia Julianelle, director of state projects at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said on a conference call with the press on Wednesday.

The report called for school districts to explicitly include programs for homeless students in their Local Control and Accountability Plans that map how districts will spend funds under the new state education finance system.  Of the 10 districts with the highest numbers of homeless students – the unified districts of Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Diego, Fontana, Long Beach, and Norwalk-LaMirada, as well as Coulton Joint Unified,  Anaheim Union High and Santa Maria Bonita – only the local plan of Long Beach Unified listed homeless students as a group whose progress it would track, Julianelle said.

The 10 districts in California with the highest number of homeless students. Chart by Kidsdata. Data Source: Special Tabulation by the Homeless Education Program in the School Turnaround Office at the California Department of Education (Apr. 2014); California Dept. of Education, California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS), DataQuest (Apr. 2014).

Homeless students are automatically counted as low-income students and qualify for designated funds under the new Local Control Funding Formula, said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project. But she said specifically focusing on homeless youth in local accountability plans would bring more services to them.

The number of California public school students who lack “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” – the federal definition of homeless children and youth – increased by by 8 percent in 2012-13 compared to the previous year, according to the report. Among other outcomes, homelessness affects school attendance.

The vast majority of California school districts in all settings – urban, suburban and rural – have homeless students in their midst, the report said. While in 2005-06, 40 percent of districts reported having zero homeless students, only 15 percent of districts reported having no homeless students enrolled in 2011-12. Not surprisingly, given its size, Los Angeles Unified had the largest number of homeless students, at 14,323, but rural Trinity County had the highest percentage of homeless students, at 13 percent.

State and federal legislators have worked to address some of the needs of homeless students. Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, homeless students have the right to continue attending their school of origin, even if homelessness forces them to move across school or district boundaries.

According to the new data, 86 percent of homeless students are doubled up with friends or relatives, a situation that is not as comfortable as it might sound, said Brenda Dowdy, a liaison between school and homeless students in San Bernardino County who spoke on the press conference call. She said she visited a house that had 21 children and their parents staying in it. Some of the homes being used by multiple families may not have running water or a refrigerator, Dowdy said.

“I’ve gone on home visits where you have a mattress in a closet and they’re looking at it as a room,” said Melissa Schoonmaker, a liaison between school and homeless students in Los Angeles County. “Our families wind up in these temporary places because they don’t want to go to shelters because they’re afraid their family will wind up being split up,” she said. “They’d rather be together in a car or in the park.”

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