More than a quarter-million K-12 students in California’s public schools were struggling with homelessness before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and researchers say that number is likely climbing much higher under the burden of the ongoing economic crisis.
A new report from the University of California, Los Angeles, highlights a lack of school-based resources for these students and their families — a population that, while now spiking, has been steadily growing for years. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s 6.3 million students lived in poverty prior to the pandemic, according to the report, while the number of homeless K-12 students has ballooned by 48% over the last decade, according to federal data.
“Even in these tense and difficult times, the large and growing number of homeless students in our state is a crisis that should shock all of us,” Tyrone Howard, faculty director at UCLA’s Center for Transforming Education, stated in a press release late last month.
State law requires each school district to have at least one homelessness liaison. Their job is to eliminate enrollment and academic barriers by helping homeless students and their families stay connected to the school and coordinating with various social services programs to get them the resources they need to stabilize.
But the liaisons, who were already stretched thin, are struggling to respond to a rapidly growing population of students who are homeless. The students they serve are also now facing a hoard of new challenges, like access to the technology needed for remote learning and trying to focus on their Zoom classes while packed in a motel room with their entire family.
“I feel like I’m on call, 24/7. It’s like I’m an ER doctor,” said a liaison who participated in a focus group for the study.
The report calls out the need for more resources and staffing, but also recognizes the budget constraints that make this challenging. To compensate, the authors prescribe better coordination with child welfare and social service agencies, as well as community-based organizations, to deploy the limited resources in holistic, cohesive ways.
The report also stresses the need for teachers and school staff to be trained in identifying and recognizing the needs of students struggling with homelessness, and for that training to be culturally responsive. Black, Native and Latino youth experiencing homelessness face harsher consequences for the symptoms of their housing situation, like chronic truancy and behavioral issues. These young people, who are overrepresented in the homeless student population, are more likely to be suspended, and less likely to graduate, according to the report.
More resources to serve this population are critically needed, the report indicates. Recent state education reforms create dedicated funding streams to serve a handful of higher needs or vulnerable student populations — foster youth, English language learners and low-income students — but not for homeless students. Services for homeless youth are funded through scarce and competitive federal grants; researchers found this funding ultimately reaches only about one-third of the students in need in California.