Identification of homeless youth is vital as housing instability increases

About 2,600 students experienced housing instability in San Mateo County — one of the wealthiest counties in California — between 2016 and 2019. As  rates of homelessness increase as a result of the pandemic, local educational agencies must improve identification efforts to ensure students receive the supports they need, according to a new study.

Released April 19 by the Stanford University Graduate School of Education John W. Gardner Center, the report cites that students living with housing instability are disproportionately Black, Latino and/or English learners. Even before the pandemic, about 70 percent of students experiencing housing instability were Latino, nearly half were English learners, and Black youth were three times more likely to face housing instability than their peers.

“Early evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to exacerbate the crisis of housing instability; some who had previously experienced housing stability are, for the first time, experiencing some form of housing instability, and others who previously experienced some form of housing instability may now face even greater or more frequent instability,” researchers wrote. “Although the extent of the increases in homelessness and housing instability in San Mateo County is yet unclear, it is certainly time to acknowledge and address the significant housing-related challenges that many are experiencing.”

Anywhere from 1.3 to 1.7 million youth in the US, including 260,000 living in California, experience homelessness each year, according to the report, and researchers note that students are likely being undercounted. In San Mateo County, for instance, between 10 and 20 percent of homeless youth are experiencing “literal homelessness” (e.g., living unsheltered or in a temporary shelter), while between 80 and 90 percent are experiencing “precarious housing” (e.g.,  living temporarily with friends or relatives, or in danger of being evicted); these students are less likely to be identified by school officials.

Several significant differences in outcomes were identified between students who were homeless and unstably housed compared to students who had stable household income and housing.

Homeless students miss more school days and complete high school at lower rates than stably housed students. They are also suspended from school up to five times more often, depending on grade level. All of this missed time has a cumulative impact on student achievement.

Students experiencing housing instability are not evenly distributed across the region. In San Mateo, the largest clusters were found in East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood City School District and the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.


Getting an accurate count is the first and foremost critical step LEAs can take. That may require addressing the stigma around homelessness or fear of drawing attention to immigration status in some households, establishing guidelines around record-keeping and more accurate determination of housing across school sites, and providing discreet opportunities and incentives for students and/or their families to disclose housing instability.

Local and county leaders should convene a community of practice among leaders of LEAs and community-based organizations to reflect together on the local or regional inventory of available services, identify gaps, develop plans for filling the gaps and cultivate their collective engagement in understanding and responding to the needs of youth experiencing housing instability. Additionally, supporting districts’ and local organizations’ efforts to connect students experiencing housing instability with coordinated and comprehensive support within and outside of the school setting is vital. Helpful resources could include templates for needs assessments or intake interviews, school-based best practices around access to free and reduced-price meals and transportation, as well as an up-to-date inventory of discreet, accessible and relevant community-based organizations.

The state can support county leaders by creating the conditions and resources needed to ensure accurate data collection and reporting regarding youth dwelling status.

“The report’s findings highlight the importance of strengthening systems for identifying students who are experiencing housing instability, improving data systems for recording and maintaining this information, and using such data to inform policy and practice not only in schools and districts, but throughout the county,” researchers concluded. “Needs are greater than prior to the pandemic, adding to the strength of calls for integrated county- and state-wide responses to this ongoing crisis in housing and more. This includes developing cross-sector awareness of youth experiencing housing instability and a similar cross-sector engagement in providing support.”