New report reveals an alarming state of crisis for California homeless students

By Geneva Sum

State of Crisis, Dismantling Student Homelessness in California, a new report from the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, reveals that even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, student homelessness was already on the rise and is estimated to worsen. More than 269,000 K-12 students in California were homeless in the 2018–19 school year.

The report, which analyzes data from the California Department of Education and includes findings from over 150 interviews, shows a striking increase of student homelessness by nearly 50 percent in the past decade. The report’s findings are alarming: 2 out 3 students experiencing homelessness in California receive no federal funding. The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (MVA) is intended to support the educational success of students experiencing homelessness. Yet, just 106 of 1,037 (9 percent) of school districts in California actually receive these funds.

“The 106 MVA subgrants, which total over $10 million, touch about 97,000 young people or about 1 in 3 students experiencing homelessness in the state,” Bishop says. “Meanwhile, a majority of students and LEAs receive no dedicated federal funds to support the educational success of students experiencing homelessness.”

The report’s findings reveal yet another example of the pressing issues that disproportionately affect Latinx and Black students in America 70 percent of the students experiencing homelessness in 2018–19 were Latinx. Black students, who make up 5 percent of the student population, represent 9 percent of students experiencing homelessness. The data reveals a need for more racially and culturally responsive strategies in education practice and policy.

Homelessness and inability for students to succeed are very interconnected, and the report examines these implications for student learning and success. The report reveals that students experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be suspended or chronically absent, have a lower high school graduation rate (70 pertcent versus 86 percent), and half as likely to be UC/CSU-ready than their housed peers.

Students experiencing homelessness interviewed in the report say they are often overlooked or misunderstood, and need support to fully engage in learning. One student interviewed shared: “I have to work, and I couldn’t be at school on time. There’s days where I just couldn’t get to work. I couldn’t get to school and really was just sitting in the classroom relearning everything I’ve already learned and just having to go through dealing with the immaturity of other students and not having the understanding of the other students. Teachers didn’t understand either.”

The call to action also must include a collaborative effort to better understand and address these students’ needs. “We need to build empathy, [and] ability to think beyond your own life experiences. There are many teachers who do not know about their student’s personal struggles. They see the kids in school but have no idea of what they may be going through. They may come off like they are not caring because they really don’t understand,” said one district leader.

The report also advocates for better coordination between school districts, county offices of education and community-based organizations. The current professional capacity to support students affected by homelessness is inadequate. “Many districts identify homeless students and refer them to dedicated staff, such as a family advocate, but do not necessarily integrate training and knowledge of student homelessness challenges into their regular practices,” said a district officer.

Not only does more training need to occur, but policy changes from local to federal levels must be implemented to tackle the crisis. The report recommends that school districts align their Local Control and Accountability Plan goals and adopt a Multi-Tiered System of Support framework to organize schools around the needs of students experiencing homelessness. City and county organizations should coordinate access to resources and encourage the development of after-school programs and services for these students, as well as offer affordable housing. State policymakers are encouraged to invest in educational programs to meet the needs of the students experiencing homelessness.

Federal policymakers must establish a standard definition for student homelessness to improve the identification of young people for targeted support and resources and eliminate the confusion that multiple definitions create for educators and school systems. The study also urges the federal government to adequately fund the McKinney Vento Act to allow for federal resources to be directed to state and local systems at a much larger scale.

The report is a project of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS), which hopes that, by elevating the perspectives of school personnel, frontline service providers, and students who experience homelessness, this report can serve as a catalyst for sustained and strategic action to ameliorate this crisis. “Even in these tense and difficult times, the large and growing number of students experiencing homelessness in our state is a crisis that should shock all of us,” said Tyrone Howard, CTS Faculty Director. “We hope this report will create greater awareness of student homelessness, the racial disparities that exist with students experiencing homelessness, and provide policymakers with meaningful insight and information. Aggressive, immediate and effective action is needed by leaders at every level of government and in our community to dismantle this unacceptable crisis.”

Funding for the CTS research has been provided by the Raikes Foundation, the Stuart Foundations and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Read the full report here.

Geneva Sum is a communications & design specialist at UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools.