California school officials would have a standardized method for identifying the thousands of homeless students who attend the state’s K-12 schools and have access to funding to support them under a bill the Legislature approved this week. Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 10 to sign it into law.
Assembly Bill 27 requires school districts, county offices of education and charter schools to administer a housing questionnaire and report the results every year to the California Department of Education. It also establishes three technical assistance centers statewide that will create and facilitate training materials to help outline the needs of homeless youth and their families, plus assist school districts, county offices of education and charter schools in ensuring that all homeless students are identified.
California’s homeless youth population is large and growing: A University of California Los Angeles study released last year found that the state’s homeless student population has increased by nearly 50% over the past decade — a statistic included in a recent legislative analysis for AB 27. The study’s researchers also found that nearly 270,000 students in California K-12 schools were homeless in 2018-19, with the majority of those students identifying as Latino. The Covid-19 pandemic, researchers said, likely led to an increase in those numbers.
Homeless students might not be able to access the resources they need if the students go unidentified by school staff, according to the bill’s co-authors, Assembly members Luz Rivas, D-Arleta; David Chiu, D-San Francisco; and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton.
“There is currently no standardized process for identifying homeless children — this bill will fix that. By identifying homeless children, the state can ensure CDE and districts have the ability to deliver limited resources more effectively at a time when we need it most,” the bill’s co-authors wrote in a legislative analysis.
The bill uses the federal definition for homeless youth: individuals without a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes those moving between friends’ and relatives’ homes, living with multiple families in a single household or in a car or RV, among other situations. It also includes unaccompanied minors, which the bill defines as a homeless youth who is not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.
The bill has been approved by the Assembly and the Senate. If signed by the governor, the bill has an urgency clause stating it must go into effect immediately rather than on Jan. 1, when nonurgent bills go into effect.
“Because of the urgency to identify these students and connect them to resources that they need, we want to make sure that we can get that process started as soon as possible,” said Ruy Laredo, a spokesman for Rivas.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires every public school to count the number of students who are living on the street, in shelters, in motels, in cars, doubled up with other families or moving between friends’ and relatives’ homes. It also mandates that every school district, county office of education and charter school hire a local liaison who must ensure that homeless youth are identified and have services coordinated for them.
A 2019 audit conducted by the office of State Auditor Elaine Howle found that available data suggest California’s districts, county offices, and charter schools “are not doing enough to identify youth who are experiencing homelessness, even though identification is the critical first step to providing these youth with the necessary services and support.”
Of five school districts and one charter school that were reviewed for the audit, two did not administer annual housing questionnaires to identify homeless youth, none provided adequate training to help train school staff in supporting homeless youth and one disseminated information related to their homeless education programs in public spaces frequented by families of youth experiencing homelessness, which is required by federal law.
The 2019 audit was conducted just months after Newsom vetoed a bill similar to the one that landed on his desk Friday. AB 27, in fact, is a revival of that very bill, which was vetoed in part because Newsom reasoned that the Department of Education already received sufficient funding to support homeless youth.
The pandemic, however, has exacerbated the needs of many students with unstable housing and heightened the sense of urgency regarding how to best support those students.
“I think for at least the next few years, we will just begin to get a handle on how many families have been impacted by Covid, mostly on the economic side,” said Joseph Bishop, director of UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, which compiled the UCLA report cited by AB 27’s co-authors. “We saw a record job loss and unemployment at one point, and that tends to impact young people the most.”
That urgency, in part, is what prompted the revival of the bill.
“We think that this bill is very timely because of Covid and all of the implications that we know Covid has brought on economically in terms of housing for students,” Laredo said. “So we think that this bill is even more necessary now.”
The 2019 audit also found that the Department of Education was not adequately monitoring all districts, county offices of education and charter schools in their efforts to identify and support homeless youth, as required by federal law. Of the nearly 2,300 districts, county offices and charters schools in the state, the audit found that only about 20 were being monitored on an annual basis. That is less than 1% of the state’s districts, county offices and charter schools.
AB 27 includes recommendations for ensuring the California Department of Education monitors districts, county offices of education and charter schools more closely. The bill requires the department to:
- Develop best practices for districts, county offices and charter schools to use in identifying homeless youth attending schools in their systems.
- Develop a model questionnaire to be used in identification efforts.
- Designate three county offices of education as regional technical assistance centers.
- Allocate a one-time grant of $1.5 million to be distributed between the three technical assistance centers.
The bill is tied to funding from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion federal aid package signed by President Joe Biden in March to help states address the economic impacts of Covid-19. It included the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief-Homeless Children and Youth Fund, which provides $800 million to support homeless youth.
California’s share of that fund, according to the bill, will pay for the $1.5 million that AB 27 requires the Education Department to disburse to the three technical assistance centers. The centers would be operative only for the duration of the grant period for the fund, which is estimated to end on June 30, 2024.
If Newsom signs the bill into law, it has the potential to raise awareness of the vast population of homeless youth in the state and across the nation, Bishop said.
“I think Covid has really made it clear that we live in a still very unjust, inequitable society,” he said. “And when basic needs aren’t met for literally thousands and thousands of people, then we’ve got to do something different.”
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