Structure of the Report

The goal of this report is to explore the types of educational and social supports that 269,000 students experiencing homelessness in California in K-12 may require to be successful in school and life[1]. We also document the unique needs of children and students experiencing homelessness in early learning settings for grades 0-5 through college, including 1 in 5 community college, 1 in 10 California State University (CSU) and 1 in 20 University of California (UC) students. Section I establishes the underlying challenges impacting educational success for students experiencing homelessness. The parameters for state and federal policies to address student homelessness in California are summarized in Section II. Section III of the report captures key findings based on focus groups and interviews with over 150 stakeholders from across the state including service providers, community-based organizations, Local Education Agencies (LEAs), and higher education institutions in the state of California (see Appendix B for research methods). In Section IV, we highlight the perspectives of students who have experienced homelessness, exploring how homelessness has affected their capacity to participate and succeed in school. In Section V of the report, we analyze patterns in state data from the 2018-2019 academic school year for school districts and counties. Specifically, we analyze key indicators that influence student academic success, including 1) suspension rates, 2) chronic absenteeism rates, 3) graduation rates, and 4) UC/CSU readiness rates. Implications for lawmakers at all levels of government to address the student homelessness crisis are presented in Section VI. Lastly, Section VII discusses the connections between our findings in this report, and some of the practices, policies, and priorities that can improve services for the growing number of young people living in poverty and experiencing homelessness in the state of California.

Because of the complexity and scale of the challenges facing students experiencing homelessness in California, policymakers and educators need more accurate methods and greater capacity to identify affected students so that they can develop a strategy for deploying resources and implementing effective support systems. Both focus group participants and individual interviewees overwhelmingly called for an aggressive response to address the growing needs of students experiencing homelessness.

COVID-19 & Inequality

Poverty and inequality had profoundly shaped the California education landscape long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost two-thirds of the 6.3 million K-12 students in California are economically disadvantaged. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to bring about additional hardships for students and families experiencing homelessness.

COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have led to a surge in job loss and employment rates, at its peak (15.5%) reaching the highest it’s been in 50 years (Bohn et al., 2020). Unemployment numbers in Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous, reveal that 599,000 residents have filed for unemployment, which could result in significant consequences for 558,000 children who live in households unlikely to be able to pay the rent (Blasi, 2020). Substantial increases in unemployment and other adverse economic repercussions of the virus will likely cause an increase in the number of students who will fit the definition of homelessness under federal laws and thus qualify for homeless educational services.

Across California, school locations closed in March and transitioned to distance learning in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. While closing schools was necessary to protect public health, school closures pose real challenges for students experiencing homelessness because many of them depend on support services provided by their local schools. These include a safe space to be and learn during the day for 6-8 hours, school meals, dedicated and caring staff, developmental support for early learning, and expanded learning through before/after school services. For our college-level students, the closing of postsecondary institutions has placed additional stress on young people who have no housing off-campus.

Districts throughout the state have modified services for students experiencing homelessness to adapt to the challenges of coping with COVID-19, both in terms of helping students meet basic needs, and through providing distance learning services. Nevertheless, some of the underlying learning challenges that existed before COVID have only created more stark differences between students experiencing homelessness and those who have a stable living environment. One county official shared her perspective on this issue.

“Most of our families end up in places like motels, because there is very limited housing for them. So they may be in motels for months or years because the permanent housing market is just not there…and that’s tough to be in situations where you’re in a hotel and trying to learn. That’s not optimal learning. If you’ve got a family of seven living in a one-room apartment for months on end and trying to do online learning, that right there alone, it’s very, very difficult, and it’s discouraging for a lot of our students. We’re pushing education because we know it can be a cycle breaker, but it’s discouraging for them.”

Some of the modified services that school systems have prioritized in response to COVID-19 include transportation assistance, “home” delivery of learning materials (or other appropriate options), and providing meals and hygienic supplies. Los Angeles County has established 60 ‘Grab and Go’ centers to allow students and families to access two meals each day. Across the state, school districts have modified their nutrition services programs to provide weekly and weekend meals in bulk for entire families. Meal distribution has also provided an effective mechanism for local educational agencies (LEAs) to communicate with families and supply additional educational resources, materials, and pertinent information. In Fresno County, for example, districts are working together with teachers to help develop systems for identifying students who might be experiencing homelessness through ‘virtual’ indicators presented within distance learning settings. Some districts in the Central Valley are exploring ways to improve instruction for students who lack access to quiet, dedicated spaces for learning and class participation. A county office of education representative explained further.

“For students, let’s say, in a motel room, these kids are trying to learn and focus. Quite a few districts are getting headphones so that it cancels out [distractions]. Also, some are actually ordering microphones. So they’re really anticipating what students might need.”

The abrupt shift to distance learning has presented real challenges for students experiencing homelessness. Challenges for students experiencing homelessness include not only finding safe, stable spaces for them to learn, but also having adequate technology and internet access to participate in class discussions. One Southern California non-profit shared how it has shifted its focus under COVID-19 to distributing hot spots to families, shelters, and motels or hotels, to help students.

We’ve made getting hot spots a top priority for our organization to support distance education. Recently we delivered a hotspot to a family, and their little girl started crying. She was just so happy, because she loved doing her homework and that hotspot would allow her to do homework.

There was a hotel owner that worked so well with the county homeless liaison that a partnership was developed between them and a non-profit educational services agency that the hotel owner designated one entire room typically used to rent for students to set up digital devices and virtually meet with teachers and tutors.

As one interviewee shared, these types of collaborations are more likely to be possible when homeless liaisons have served in their positions for several years, are fully and continuously funded, and become familiar enough with the communities they serve to build relationships with students and families. In some instances, because of the dislocation challenges associated with homelessness, teachers and school sites have difficulty communicating with students outside of school, making it difficult to effectively communicate with students outside of school to assess their living situations or educational needs. The cumulative effects of these both known and unknown COVID-19-related opportunity gaps may further exacerbate disparities in achievement between students experiencing homelessness and their non-homeless peers.

In response to COVID, the California Department of Education continues to work closely with county homeless liaisons to ensure that students experiencing homelessness and youth within their county have access to technology and internet access to support distance learning. This report highlights the urgency of responding effectively to the changing needs of students experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, documenting prevailing educational conditions that existed before COVID.