III. Key Findings from Stakeholders in the Field of Early Childhood Education, K-12 & Higher Education

The authors of this report interviewed over 150 individuals, including service providers, county office of education representatives, district officials, students, educators, homeless liaisons, advocacy, and community-based organizations. To do so, we conducted three statewide focus group meetings, and one-on-one interviews over the course of a year, intending to identify common responses to the following questions:

What services are currently available to students experiencing homelessness in school systems?

What obstacles do students face when seeking services?

How could school systems better serve students experiencing homelessness?

Table 5. Summary of Focus Group & Interview Participants (N=155)*

Interview SettingsStakeholdersNumber of
Focus GroupsNonprofit organizations, Service providers, Foundation Organizations, State agencies, McKinney-Vento Liaisons, K-12 school staff, K-12 school educators, K-12 District and County Partners, Higher Education partners119
Individual interviewsStudents13
Individual interviewsHigher Education campus and system-wide leaders8
Individual interviewsEarly Childhood Education partners7
Individual interviewsLeaders in the department of education4
Individual interviewsNonprofit organizations4

*More detailed research methods can be found in Appendix A.

In reporting our findings, we have also incorporated a discussion of the research literature on student homelessness and the role of early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary education systems in mitigating the effects of poverty. We then make connections between the data we collected from our focus groups and interviews and the existing scholarship. A more detailed research methodology description can be found in Appendix A.

Key Findings

A number of themes emerged in focus groups and interviews that the authors further expand upon in this section:

  1. Current professional capacity to support students impacted by homelessness is inadequate: comprehensive, targeted and coordinated training is needed. Read more below >
  2. Homeless liaisons are struggling to effectively respond to growing needs in their community, requiring more resources and staffing. Read more below >
  3. The prevalence of Latinx and Black youth experiencing homelessness requires more racially and culturally responsive strategies in education practice and policy. Read more below >
  4. Students experiencing homelessness are often overlooked or misunderstood in school settings, which can result in negative educational experiences. Read more below >
  5. Better coordination is needed between child welfare, housing and education stakeholders to alleviate barriers for students and families. Read more below >
  6. Community-based organizations and nonprofits provide a critical function as part of an ecosystem of support for students and can get out resources to families quickly. Read more below >
  7. The bookends of education, early education and higher education are an often-overlooked yet essential part of a coordinated response to student homelessness, from cradle to college. Read more below >

Key Finding 1: Current professional capacity to support students impacted by homelessness is inadequate: comprehensive, targeted and coordinated training is needed.

Additional training focused on common instructional strategies that incorporate student supports such as trauma-informed care, restorative practices, and efforts that promote positive social and emotional development, are essential for schools serving students experiencing homelessness. Educators frequently stated that professional learning opportunities on such evidence-based strategies are too general and not explicitly tailored to address the needs of students experiencing homelessness. One district official explained further.

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 (e.g. counselors need to provide additional services to homeless high school students).

Of those homeless liaisons and district staff interviewed, a common theme was that the responsibility of coordinating services for homeless students has been placed on a single staff member. Having a solitary staff member serve as a homeless liaison was often cited in our focus groups as highly problematic for a range of reasons. Often, such individuals are not based at a single school site, but are serving multiple school sites simultaneously. When homeless liaisons are based within district offices or county offices of education they are often too removed from school settings to play an effective role in supporting homeless children and families to be a part of a student’s daily life or play a substantive role in the school’s community. County Offices of Education (COEs) and district liaisons are overwhelmed by the number of students in need of direct services to students.

I call myself the one-woman band. The funding from the state is nonexistent for homeless education. All of our money comes through the federal government and we have a grant which we have to apply for every three years to receive funding. And so it’s basically me and the county.

As was described by homeless liaisons we interviewed, in some K-12 educational settings, homeless liaisons serve as the lead educator supporting all high-need student populations (e.g., foster youth, homeless youth, migrant youth). Such multi-role arrangements are often necessary due to a shortage of funding. We learned from liaisons interviewed that they frequently struggle to prioritize the educational success of homeless students, given the number of students they are serving and the complexity of student needs (e.g., range of necessary services, academic, social, and emotional supports).

Three different county officials highlighted a desire for more resources that would allow for more professional learning opportunities for homeless education that match that of foster care liaisons, many of whom also wear a homeless liaison hat. One county official explains further.

I think it would help to just continue to provide deeper support. For instance, in foster care, they have monthly meetings with their regions, and so they are constantly providing them a place to gather and network and support each other. I am part of those, but I bounce around to the foster care meetings just to support the side of homeless. Since a lot of our homeless liaisons are foster liaisons, a lot of our foster liaisons are homeless liaisons.

Families experiencing homelessness often face obstacles early on in accessing services for their students. Navigating these obstacles requires highly trained educators who understand state and federal laws and students’ rights. A Northern California official from Head Start, a federally funded early anti-poverty program, explained the urgent need for additional training for people in the field directly working with students and families experiencing homelessness. She stated:

A lot of expertise is required to serve families experiencing homelessness. You almost have to have a background in social services to handle some of the emotional strain and stress that the families are under.

This Head Start representative was speaking directly to the impact of the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, and its effects on displaced families, many of whom are now classified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act (including doubled up due to economic hardship or in temporary housing, shelters or hotels, and motels). Later in this report, we explore the role of early interventions for students experiencing homelessness like the federally funded Head Start program. Head Start uses the same McKinney Vento Act definition of homelessness, allowing for greater alignment and collaboration opportunities between early childhood programs and K-12 systems. Families with young children face additional, unique challenges dealing with homelessness, especially the emotional distress resulting from fires and home loss that can impact young children, resulting in anxiety, nightmares, and sleep disorders (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2010). The ability to effectively respond to an array of student and family needs resulting from a traumatic event like the Camp Fire requires that educators possess specialized training and expertise.

Educators also need professional learning opportunities in order to better serve specific populations of students experiencing homelessness, including students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ). A majority of advocacy and community-based organizations who participated in focus groups expressed a need for intersectional training to increase awareness about the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ students experiencing homelessness (Quintana et al., 2010; Durso & Gates, 2012, p. 2017; Rush & Santos, 2018). Of the 1.6 million youth who experience homelessness nationally, an estimated “20-40% identify as LGBTQ” (Page, 2017). One of the primary reasons that LGBTQ students experience high rates of homelessness and housing insecurity is “family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” Rejection and abuse force many students out of their homes (Durso & Gates, 2012; Page, 2017). LGBTQ students of color face additional challenges related to discrimination and racism (NYC Commission, 2010). Students who are Black and identify as LGBTQ are more likely than other racial groups to experience homelessness (Morton et al., 2018).

Researchers have noted that MVA does not require targeted support for homeless LGBTQ youth (Quintana et al., 2010) or customized training for educators. Currently, California has no required training for professionals who provide services to staff working with LGBTQ youth who may have run away and become homeless as a result of mistreatment and rejection (Rush & Santos, 2018). As one educator noted, “Any school-based adults who support students need training [for LGBTQ identifying students], not just classroom teachers and administrators.” Quinatana et al. (2010) call for a targeted standard of care for homeless LGBTQ youth.

A common finding among focus groups was a need for more guidance from county offices of education, where services and expertise are typically housed on strategies for serving students experiencing homelessness. Focus group participants noted that such guidance be should be offered to school districts that have direct contact with students experiencing homelessness and their families. Better communication, resource sharing, and coordination between school districts and counties can help foster a robust, multi-system coordination of care. Currently, educators and homeless liaisons find themselves working mainly in isolation as they respond to students impacted by housing instability. They feel challenged to identify students who need services and connect them to services county-wide or within districts without adequate time and resources to do so.

Key Finding 2: Homeless liaisons are struggling to effectively respond to growing needs in their community, requiring more resources and staffing.

The MVA mandates that all school districts and charter schools designate a homeless liaison who can serve as an advocate for homeless children and youth. “Liaisons are broadly responsible for monitoring transportation-related issues, facilitating student matriculations into schools and programs, educating schools and parents about MVA, and consulting parents about how to navigate school systems” (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017; Miller, 2011). Homeless liaisons are among the few staff who shoulder the responsibilities for promoting the academic success and well-being of young people experiencing homelessness.

One of the most pressing concerns expressed by district liaisons in focus groups was the need to support students facing housing instability for the entire year, even when schools are closed. One liaison explained:

“My position is 9.5 months—this limits the amount of time I work with our McKinney-Vento families. I know, I believe my work requires additional time, 9.5 [months] is not enough.”

Minimal federal support can make funding full-time liaisons extremely difficult, particularly for 12-month positions in large county offices, such as Los Angeles County, that are heavily reliant on McKinney-Vento subgrants.

However, the increasing responsibilities of liaisons and the growing number of students experiencing homelessness (48% in the last decade in California) now requires more time and resources to support students, not less (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). A prevalent challenge of homeless liaisons interviewed was the all-consuming nature of the role. One participant said,

“We service 80 districts and 350 plus charters with anything that they need, everything from technical assistance support, onsite training, video training now, which we do a lot of, helping them find resources and supplies. We’re doing a lot of technical work on legal related pieces. The funding is essential. I just wish again, there was more of it because there’s such a high need.”

The pressure to address critical unmet needs of students experiencing homelessness and families expressed by this liaison was also reiterated by several of the homeless advocates we interviewed.

Shouldering the primary responsibility for not only academic advice for students experiencing homelessness, but also being a strong advocate for young people can be an overwhelming job, an issue that repeatedly surfaced in focus groups and individual interviews with liaisons. A recent report recommended that school districts and the state of California devote more staff time and resources to liaisons so that they can more effectively perform in their jobs (Piazza & Hyatt, 2019a). One study found that 92% of homeless liaisons spend less than 25% of their time carrying out their MVA-related duties (Shea et al., 2010), suggesting that time and availability could be barriers to effective implementation of student supports. A majority of the liaisons interviewed for this report carry out several roles, such as responsibility for providing services to foster youth, migrant students, special education students, and “specialized services” broadly. The authors also heard that time constraints and competing priorities can impede liaisons’ ability to distribute resources, including clean clothes, childcare subsidies, health and hygiene supplies, and access to laundry facilities. One liaison in particular explained the importance of being in her position long enough to have built relationships in the community. This has allowed her to successfully spread a message of need to donors to assist students and families.

Another concern expressed by the interviewees and focus group members involves the inability to maintain consistent communication with students and families experiencing homelessness who frequently move between temporary residences and often lack cell phones. Students may move between districts, counties, and across state lines. The CEO of a nonprofit agency that provides early childhood services mentioned it was challenging to provide services to families who did not have a fixed living location. This issue also surfaced with liaisons. Early education programs only receive funding if a student is in attendance and may need to dis-enroll students for missing as little as 10 days in a full year. This dilemma is commonplace in early childhood programs.

The kids who are enrolled in our Head Start programs, where they do have a place for children to be during the day, they tend to move around. The kids will be there for a while, then they’re not there and we have to keep our attendance at 90%. And that’s a challenge for us. The more kids that you enroll that are homeless, they may show up or they may not show up, the harder it is to keep your levels [attendance] at where they’re required by federal law to be.

Not only is maintaining consistent communication often difficult to manage, but so is maintaining service continuity among highly mobile families experiencing homelessness. Unstable living situations among the homeless population creates challenges in adhering to federal requirements based on schools and delivering consistent support to children and youth.

These factors collectively—the growth of the student population experiencing homelessness, the broad scope of responsibilities for homeless liaisons, and the complex realities of serving a highly mobile community—speak to the need for multiple layers of support to monitor, manage and appropriately serve students and families experiencing homelessness. Employing only one homeless liaison or staff member is insufficient to accomplish satisfactory performance in most cases. However, it can be difficult to fund more than one staff because of budget constraints.

Key Finding 3: The prevalence of Latinx and Black youth experiencing homelessness requires more racially and culturally responsive strategies in education practice and policy.

Researchers who have analyzed patterns related to race and discipline among students experiencing homelessness have found that children of color experiencing homelessness are more likely to have poor educational outcomes. This is reflected in our state analysis across all 58 counties. We found that Latinx (70%) and Black (9%) students who are experiencing homelessness (see Figure 2) are almost twice as likely to be suspended (see Figure 3) or miss an extended period of school to absenteeism (see Figure 4), experience lower graduation rates (16%, see Figure 5) and to be less ready for college than their non-homeless peers (27%, see Figure 6). The intersection of poor educational outcomes and homelessness present within schools cannot be overlooked (Moore et al., 2019; & Aviles de Bradley, 2015).

Figure 2. Student Enrollment by Race, 2018-2019

4%Two or more races3%
1%Not Reported0.8%
0.5%American Indian or Alaska Native0.8%
0.4%Pacific Islander0.6%

Note: State education data were retrieved from multiple 2018-19 reports created on DataQuest, disaggregated by Homelessness and filtered by “yes” for students experiencing homelessness and “no” for non-homeless students, California Department of Education, 2019b (https://data1.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/)

During the 2018-19 school year, Black, American Indian, White and Pacific Islander students who experienced homelessness received suspensions at higher rates compared to other student populations (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Suspension Rates by Race/Ethnicity, 2018-2019

Note. Suspension rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Suspension Rate, California Department of Education, 2019c.

Across all racial groups, students experiencing homelessness, were chronically absent at higher rates than their peers (Figure 4). During the 2018-2019 school year, two out of five Black and American Indian students experiencing homelessness were chronically absent.

Figure 4. Chronic Absenteeism Rates by Race/Ethnicity, 2018-2019

Chronic absenteeism rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate, California Department of Education, 2019d.

During the 2018-19 school year, 70% of all students experiencing homelessness graduated, compared to 86% of students who did not experience homelessness (Figure 5). Overall, American Indian students saw the lowest graduation rates of all student ethnic groups experiencing homelessness.

Figure 5. Four-Year Cohort* Graduation Rates by Race/Ethnicity, 2018-2019

*The four-year cohort is based on the number of students who enter grade 9 for the first time adjusted by adding into the cohort any student who transfers in later during grade 9 or during the next three years and subtracting any student from the cohort who transfers out, emigrates to another country, transfers to a prison or juvenile facility, or dies during that same period.

Note. Graduation rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

The percentage of homeless student graduates meeting UC/CSU requirements was 29% compared to the non-homeless student’s 52% overall rate (Figure 6). Students experiencing homelessness not only graduate at lower rates, but also are less likely to meet UC/CSU requirements. During the 2018-2019 school year, fewer than 30% of Black, Latinx, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and White students who experienced homelessness met the UC/CSU course requirements in California.

Figure 6. Four-Year Cohort UC/CSU Requirements Met by Race/Ethnicity, 2018-2019

Note. UC/CSU Requirements Met data were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

Research indicates that when schools respond negatively to student behavioral problems but fail to address their underlying causes, they often end up punishing the most vulnerable students (Gregory, et al., 2012). Despite evidence that Latinx and Black children are disproportionately affected by homelessness, policies aimed at supporting children experiencing homelessness such as MVA are designed to be race-neutral. They tend to ignore the underlying systemic issues (e.g. lack of access to a rigorous curriculum, underfunded schools, high unemployment, and poor neighborhood conditions; Noguera et al., 2019) that most negatively impact students of color. A greater number of students of color experience homelessness compared to the overall population. Ultimately, the nature of these social and systemic patterns determines the effectiveness of policies like MVA. These factors have significant implications in terms of the identification, interventions, and supporting activities required to eliminate barriers to educational success among students experiencing homelessness. Aviles de Bradley finds that “blanket approaches to policy implementation fail to address the racial realities for students of color” (Aviles de Bradley, 2015, p.842).

Consistent with past research (Paris & Alim, 2014; Aviles de Bradley, 2015), our interviews with service providers, educators, and district homeless liaisons suggests the importance of considering how racial discrimination and stigmas associated with homelessness often exacerbate the problems facing students experiencing homelessness and their families. For example, we heard numerous times in interviews and focus groups that students and families of color experiencing homelessness are often described as “helpless,” “hopeless” and sometimes characterized disparagingly. Such characterizations tend to negate the high degree of resilience among students and families experiencing homelessness. A student shared with us the stigma associated with being homeless, suggesting that the fear of stigmatization sometimes discourages students from revealing their living circumstances in what should be safe spaces, like schools.

There is a stigma towards being homeless. I definitely experienced that stigma. For most of my childhood, I wanted to hide the fact that I was homeless. I didn’t want anybody knowing. You’re a kid, that’s not something you want to go around saying, like, “Yeah, you know, I live in a motel.” So, you try to hide that fact about yourself, but then, as I got older, I realized that that was going to be my saving grace and what propelled me into my future. — Dilan, 19

Stakeholders we interviewed also stressed that common challenges related to educator bias against homeless youth and families contribute to the difficulties experienced by homeless students. Consistent with recommendations made by other researchers (Rush & Santos, 2018; Piazza & Hyatt 2019a; Edwards, 2019), community-based organizations expressed a desire to challenge the deficit discourses around homelessness and to move towards asset-focused discourses that emphasize the valuable experiences and expertise that students enduring homelessness can bring to the classroom. Youth often feel they have more lived experience than their peers, and in some cases more than some of their teachers, due to their homelessness experiences.

To shift towards a more asset-focused discourse, policymakers and administrators must endeavor to “realign teacher perceptions’’ of students experiencing homelessness as a homogeneous group (Moore, 2013). A careful examination of personal beliefs about homelessness can help educators move toward better understanding and supporting the needs of students and families. As “Dilan” further explained, sometimes it is challenging for students or teachers to even fathom a student in their class experiencing homelessness. Sometimes denial or even making light of homelessness can make students feel isolated.

There’s just a lot that I’ve witnessed growing up and that I realize my peers don’t fully understand and even some teachers can’t fully grasp it. It’s not because they want to be mean about it or because they look down on the person. It’s because they’re trying to make light of the situation because they emotionally can’t wrap their mind around it. Teachers, they don’t want to think of their children being in that position. — Dilan, 19

Focus group participants suggested that symposia and professional development were needed to improve education practices, and to create “higher levels of awareness among educators related to their biases and understandings of homelessness.” Some of these opportunities already exist in training for state networks of homeless liaisons and national conferences of educators who serve students experiencing homelessness. However, more educators could benefit from participating in these networks and professional learning opportunities. The CDE highly recommends Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) grantees use their grant dollars to attend these, but those without the funds are left to find ways to obtain funding needed to attend.

Key Finding 4: Students experiencing homelessness are often overlooked or misunderstood in school settings, which can result in negative educational experiences.

Several educators we interviewed shared examples of school staff and teachers who had a lack of familiarity and understanding of the unique challenges of students experiencing homelessness. Those educators we interviewed could say anecdotally that some adults had difficulty establishing positive relationships with their students, or knowing their personal stories. One district leader explained the problem in this way:

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.

Several educators made similar statements related to a lack of educators’ familiarity with the challenges faced by students and families experiencing homelessness. Inadequate training on policy definitions and ways of identification of student vulnerabilities can reinforce educators’ stereotypes about homelessness, and heighten students’ feelings of isolation. However, promoting caring school environments, when combined with increased training on MVA for all teachers and staff, can help foster quality relationships between teachers and students. Knowing that teachers care about them builds self-esteem and makes students more likely to regularly attend school (Aviles de Bradley, 2011; Knowlton, 2006). Additionally, peer acceptance can have a positive influence on attitudes toward school among children who experience homelessness and housing instability (Gruman, Harachi, Abbott, Catalano, & Fleming, 2008).

In my junior year I was having difficulties in school because of how I was treated by other students. I was dealing with bullying and then my home situation was really difficult…I had to move schools because of how bad the bullying got. And then I left school. I didn’t get to go back and I tried to re-enroll this year and it didn’t work out too well. I couldn’t make it to school so they unenrolled me. I enrolled in another program and I couldn’t make it. So they also unenrolled me. And so I just decided I was going to take my GED instead. — October, 18

My dad’s friend let us stay inside his house. But there were times when they would kick us out. And it would be two or three in the morning, and we would have to leave the house. So, there are times where I will keep Axe spray and just spray myself before I go to school…I kept it [homelessness] to myself because I was already getting bullied about my weight and everything else. — Johnny, 20

Empathy and supportive school environments can help to mitigate and reduce disturbing patterns of school-based victimization for students experiencing homelessness. A statewide study of school-based victimization, discriminatory bullying, and weapon victimization by student homeless status (Moore et al., 2019) found that homeless students experience violence at higher rates, particularly in school settings. Two students in individual interviews shared how peer bullying and poor institutional responses negatively shaped their school experiences and outcomes.

These quotes from students remind us that youth who experience victimization in one context (i.e., home) are often at heightened risk of being bullied at school (Tyler & Schmitz, 2018). “Olive” did not give specific examples of the challenges she faced at home, but did refer to her “home situation” as another obstacle impeding her ability to learn and to feel safe at school. In “Johnny’s” case, abandonment after staying at a friend’s house, coupled with bullying at school about his weight, and “everything else” created a perfect storm of negative experiences during a critical period of his life. He no longer found school to be a safe or supportive setting, which led to him being pushed out of school and not graduating. Further, the school “unenrolling” Olive when she could not make it to school profoundly shaped her academic options.

These findings have critical policy and service intervention implications, underscoring how important it is for educators to be able to identify underlying issues that can make students particularly vulnerable in school. Providers who serve students experiencing homelessness should recognize that not having stable housing may be only one of several challenges that a student may face. Educators and anyone who provides support services to students in school settings need training to know how to respond in these situations to prevent further trauma to students, and to establish systems (e.g., academic support strategies before and after school, peer networks, mentorship, tutoring, counseling, and transportation) that ensure students experiencing homelessness feel welcome, valued and empowered in school settings.

Training on establishing prevention strategies like monitoring student attendance, academic records and communications with parents and caregivers like those identified by the California Department of Education can help educators and support providers establish interventions before they result in more complex academic, social and emotional challenges for students to overcome. Such training could cover issues such as increasing awareness of critical behaviors in students such changes in grades, attendance, “hoarding” food, and changes in mood.

Key Finding 5: Better coordination is needed between child welfare, housing and education stakeholders to alleviate barriers for students and families.

To improve outcomes for students experiencing homelessness, numerous stakeholders we interviewed recommended that we shift from a siloed approach wherein different agencies work without coordination to meet the needs of the homeless population, to a full system of support for students impacted by homelessness. A stronger focus on coordination of efforts between schools, community-based organizations, county and state agencies would facilitate an integrated, family-centered response to the problem. One liaison described the issue further:

We know we need to identify students, but sometimes the students are not identified because it’s one person trying to identify versus having a whole system put in place. So it really becomes a whole support network. You need to have all levels communicating and working together.

Several respondents told us that such an approach would make it more likely to disrupt cyclical patterns of homelessness that impact multiple generations of family members. Disrupting the educational trajectory of one student through coordinated interventions can have lasting effects within families. Greater coordination also acknowledges that no single public system can adequately respond to the needs of young people and families (Corporation for Supportive Housing, 2011).

Successful interventions must begin by creating linkages between housing, child welfare systems, and public education for three important reasons: (1) the problems that homeless and child welfare-involved families face are too complex for one system to address alone; (2) without stable housing it is extremely difficult to address the other challenging issues families face; (3) schools can perform a role as service hubs that bring educational services and providers to students and families in ways welfare and housing agencies cannot do in isolation.

An example of these linkages to stable housing is already happening in Orange County. A county official explains further.

Family Solutions Collaborative is our coordinated entry specifically for families. And we work with them on a personal basis, whether it’s email or calling them. When we have a family that is struggling with housing, we are able to really tap into resources available. They also have family navigators that we call, Access Points, of different shelter agencies that we have broken up regionally within Orange County.

Several studies have made similar recommendations about the need for greater coordination between school districts and outside service providers (Edwards, 2019; Piazza & Hyatt, 2019a).

Focus groups also reflected the need for greater coordination, with a call for a more centralized process for supporting families that could reduce re-traumatization from being required to tell and retell their stories and describing their needs to multiple agencies. In most communities, housing agencies, K-12, and higher education institutions use their own proprietary data systems to make services available and to monitor the needs of students experiencing homelessness. Navigating the rules and procedures of different agencies creates yet another challenge for homeless students and their families. Often, families must repeat the details of their personal living situations multiple times to various service providers to get help.

A more centralized support process would feature development of common intake forms, better coordination in staffing, shared office space, and funding initiatives that require cooperation between nonprofits, school districts, and county partners. It would eliminate or reduce the burden placed on families from having to travel between offices, and reduce the paperwork required to obtain services and support.

A housing agency provider suggested in a focus group that

Parents should be given the gift of only having to tell their story once and receive help the first time they ask.

Without alignment of definitions of homelessness at the federal level as part of MVA, it will remain difficult to support a more compassionate response that honors the struggles of families and allow for more strategic use of funds. Creating improved housing, child welfare, and education service linkages for families not only holds the potential to best assist a group of families as they seek to achieve greater stability, but to optimize use of increasingly limited resources.

Key Finding 6: Community-based organizations and nonprofits provide a critical function as part of an ecosystem of support for students and can get out resources to families quickly.

Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in many communities to serve students and families experiencing homelessness outside of the regular school day. Our interviews and site visits to community-based organizations revealed a lack of coordination between schools, districts, homeless liaisons, and nonprofits or community-based organizations who may each serve the same homeless student populations. The published research on the fragmented nature of collaborations between homeless liaisons and agencies committed to serving young people experiencing homelessness also highlighted a lack of coordination (Ingram et al., 2017).

Nonprofits serve students who are “most concerned with their basic needs, and sometimes not even contemplating higher education, or even their education,” as explained by one Los Angeles area drop-in center. Another CEO within the First5 California network explained the significance of nonprofits as a vehicle for distributing resources quickly that “require[s] less approvals and forms than counties for families with immediate needs, especially families with young children.” Another nonprofit CEO suggested that more funds could be funneled through community organizations to get immediate support to young people and their families.

I’m a CEO of a nonprofit community-based organization and we can turn on a dime [to get out resources]. And so I would say that the way to get directly to the community is through community-based organizations that collaborate with school districts and the county.

Nonprofit organizations are doing more than providing temporary educational support and basic needs for youth. Instead, they can act as connectors or intermediaries for to other resources, networks, and social capital—opportunities that are harder to obtain if youth are seeking services on their own. In some instances, there are emerging examples of school systems, community-based organizations, faith-based groups, counties, and governments who have been able to “align services and redesign with intentionality’’ for the benefit of students and families experiencing homelessness. Those collaborative efforts have taken years to build in cities like Anaheim and Los Angeles. We recognize many more of these partnerships exist. However, they require excellent coordination in rural communities and geographically isolated settings that have the highest concentration of students experiencing homelessness in counties like Butte, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and Trinity (California Department of Education, 2019).

Nonprofit organizations can connect with existing communities and understand the challenges faced in particular neighborhoods. For example, a CEO of a nonprofit in South Los Angeles articulated how the community can help each other.

I’m very fortunate to be in the community that I’m in. We have a very family oriented community. We don’t make families come to us. We go out to the home. We do whatever we can to support them if they need to go somewhere, and we have a fleet of vans so we can pick them up and assist them and get them help.

Despite the critical support nonprofit organizations provide for their communities, they lack dedicated funding for supporting students and families experiencing homelessness. A CEO from a nonprofit serving both Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties shared a desire for more direct streams of funding, specifically for homelessness. More direct funding streams could also allow nonprofits to deploy resources and people more quickly.

We need to identify a specialized stream of funding for homeless families and not just lumping homeless families in with veterans and people with mental health issues. There are families out there, who are really struggling with this issue. They need support as well because they’re overlooked.

Key Finding 7: The bookends of education, early education and higher education are an often-overlooked yet essential part of a coordinated response to student homelessness, from cradle to college.

The types of challenges facing students experiencing homelessness vary considerably depending on their age and the type of educational institution in which they are enrolled. For example, the needs of children in early childhood settings are quite different from those enrolled in college. Helping schools and colleges to develop their capacity to meet the needs of unhoused students is essential. Distinct and coordinated responses from each education segment (e.g., early education, K-12, and higher education) that can facilitate more seamless educational pathways requires better record sharing and connections across institutions so that students experiencing homelessness encounter minimal disruption to their educational pursuits (Chapin Hall, 2019).

The Early Childhood Education (ECE) Sector

Early childhood educators shoulder a significant responsibility for supporting the academic, social, emotional, and physical health of children and families, especially families experiencing homelessness. A lack of affordable housing, the rising costs of living in California and stagnant wages represent some of the primary drivers for increased rates of homelessness for California families, especially families with young children (California Department of Education, 2019a). Research shows that early interventions and continuous investments in quality school experiences are critical to supporting healthy brain development and meeting students developmental and social needs (Yoshikawa et al., 2013). This is especially true for children from low-income families. Quality early childhood education can also change mobility patterns across generations and break cycles of poverty (Johnson, 2013).

Access to early childhood programs can aid families and students experiencing homelessness since programs are geared at serving the whole child, assisting with medical, job training, and enrollment in higher education. Essential human services are a way to improve the ability of parents to promote learning and the healthy development of their children (Theis et al., 2019). Additionally, helping families develop trust in each other and in their relations in the community and form mutually supportive relationships (Pipher, 1996; Swick, 2000) in ECE settings can have a lasting impact.

As explained by a state education official, early ed programs often function as a feeder to a school, yet there is often lack of continuity in referrals, assessments and academic supports to allow for seamless transitions for families with children experiencing homelessness. The ECE community reinforced this message in focus groups and interviews, making a strong case for prioritizing ECE services as early as possible to address the pervasive nature of inequality broadly and homelessness specifically. There is a desire from the ECE community to do more to address the growing crisis. An early childhood executive explained further.

We are usually the first connection that homeless families have to schools. If we wait until kindergarten, in some instances, it is too late to get needed services to children. There’s a lot more we can do.

Too few of our youngest children experiencing homelessness in California are receiving the benefits of being enrolled in a high-quality early childhood program. In fact, only 8% of young children experiencing homelessness are served by federally funded ECE programs, including Early Head Start, Head Start, or other ECE programs funded by the McKinney–Vento Act, and only 6% in California (Administration for Children & Families, 2017). Several underlying factors can explain low-participation rates in ECE services for families experiencing homelessness. Those include limited outreach to families experiencing homelessness before children enter public schools, a lack of understanding of the child care subsidy system, inadequate training available for early childhood teachers and providers, and a lack of available space in early childhood programs (California Department of Education, 2019a).

Head Start, a federal anti-poverty program, serves 20% of all California students enrolled in preschool (Table 6). However, the federal program does not have dedicated ECE funding to support the delivery of educational services for all children experiencing homelessness as defined by MVA. Head Start programs however, are permitted under the federal guidelines to dedicate resources for families impacted by homelessness. They are also encouraged to collaborate with McKinney‐Vento State Coordinators of Education of Homeless Children and Youth and Local Education Liaisons to ensure they have information on the full range of child care services available.

Table 6. Summary of Services Provided by Head Start CA, (Program Information Report (PIR), State Summary by Office of Head Start (OHS), 2018)

Summary of Services Provided by Head Start CA
Children Experiencing Homelessness That Were Served During the Enrollment Year4,048
Families Experiencing Homelessness That Were Served During the Enrollment Year999

One First5 early learning representative in the Bay area described a surging need for affordable childcare and growing housing costs as two drivers accelerating the rate of homelessness for young families. Increasingly, young families are struggling to meet their basic needs, like getting access to diapers, food, clothes, and shelter. This same representative cited the example of “long lines of families waiting in the rain for one package of diapers at 7 a.m. on a Saturday” to reinforce the point that families need additional assistance to secure basic needs. Additionally, families that do qualify for subsidized childcare in some instances are struggling to find childcare locally. Demand for quality childcare options far exceeds supply (First5 Alameda, 2019). Lack of access to affordable childcare constrains the ability of parents to both seek employment and maintain stable jobs while raising young children. Access to quality childcare opportunities and early childhood education programs for young children is essential for working families pursuing upward economic and social mobility.

The Higher Education Community

1 in 5 California Community College (Wood et al., 2016), 1 in 10 California State University (CSU) (Crutchfield et al., 2016) and 1 in 20 UC students (University of California, 2017) experience homelessness. In the California State University (CSU) system, Black students represent the highest number of students with low food security (25%) and very low food security (40.9%) (Crutchfield & Maguire 2018, p. 20). Also, Black students (14%) experience homelessness at a higher rate than other racial and ethnic groups (9.8-11.5%) (Crutchfield & Maguire 2018, p.22) which is different from K-12 settings where Latinx students represent a majority of students experiencing homelessness (70%).

Table 7. Percentage of Students Experiencing Homelessness by Race in UC and CSU schools, 2018-2019*

LatinxBlackAsianAmer. Ind.WhitePac. Isl.OtherTotal

Note. UC homelessness data was unavailable for Pacific Islander students. Adapted from 2018 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES) Data Tables, 2018.
CSU homelessness data were retrieved from California State University’s 2018 Study of Student Basic Needs, 2018.

During the 2018 school year, University of California results from undergraduate and graduate surveys on food insecurity and housing needs reported that 2,260 students across all UC’s experienced homelessness (Table 7). Students who identified as Black experienced homelessness at higher rates than other racial group. Additionally, Latinx students had the highest count of students experiencing homelessness of all student groups.

Homelessness can negatively impact all aspects of college students’ lives, including their class attendance and academic success (Alfano & Eduljee, 2013; Hallett, 2010; Silva et al., 2015; Crutchfield et al., 2016; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017). Compared to their peers, college students experiencing homelessness report lower GPAs (Crutchfield & Maguire, 2018), are less likely to persist in their studies (Silva et al., 2015) and are more likely to drop out (Alfano & Eduljee, 2013; Hallett, 2010). College students experiencing homelessness also report poorer physical health, more symptoms of depression or anxiety, higher levels of perceived stress, and less access to adequate and nutritious food than their peers (Crutchfield & Maguire, 2018). Yet related issues to student homelessness like food insecurity often do not begin as soon as students set foot on a college campus.

A recent study found that for students with a childhood history of food insecurity, the odds of food insecurity in college were 7 times higher compared to students who were food secure as children (Martinez et al., 2017).

California public higher education systems are taking on greater responsibility to support students who are struggling to maintain consistent and secure childcare, and access adequate food and housing in unprecedented ways (Ambrose, 2016). Often, challenges associated with housing instability can exacerbate the problem of food insecurity (Cady, 2016; Crutchfield et al., 2016; Wood, Harris, & Delgado, 2016). HUD (2015) reported that housing costs alone account for 50 percent or more of student expenses at four-year institutions, and over 65% of student expenses for students at community colleges leaving little remaining resources for educational expenses.

Similar to K-12 peers, students struggling to meet their basic needs frequently have a difficult time fully engaging in their postsecondary education (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015; Silva et al., 2017). Some of the key challenges related to homelessness include: balancing access to food and shelter (Hallett & Freas, 2017), and the social implications of housing instability, including a sense of isolation and disconnection from other students on campus (Dill & Lee, 2016; Crutchfield, 2012; Crutchfield et al., 2016) which may further discourage students from seeking out relationships with peers and instructors (Tierney & Hallett, 2012). A recent study has expanded the idea of student basic needs and its relationship to housing and food security to focus on hygiene, sleep, transportation and peace of mind (University of California, 2020).

Figure 7. Definition Of College Students’ Basic Needs (University of California, 2020)

In our interviews with campus officials, we learned that many campuses in the California Community College (CCC), California State University (CSU), and University of California (UC) systems are responding proactively to the growth in student populations experiencing food insecurity, homelessness or other related basic needs challenges. Fresno State University is one of 23 CSU campuses that have efforts in place to remove barriers for students struggling to have their basic needs met, including many who are homeless or negatively affected by housing challenges. Those services include either a food pantry or a food distribution program or both. CSU Fresno officials have not only opened “the student cupboard” on campus to make food available, but also “the closet,” making it possible for students interviewing for jobs to have access to professional work attire. Local donations from businesses and philanthropies have helped to sustain these efforts to meet basic student needs.

The California Homeless Youth Project (2020) examined basic needs resources available to college students across all 23 CSU campuses, 9 UCs and 50 of the 116 California Community Colleges. Those basic needs include emergency housing, programs targeting students experiencing housing insecurity, programs targeting foster youth, free groceries, free prepared meals, on-campus CalFresh application assistance, emergency grants, and short-term loans. The services are extensive, but need continues to outpace available resources for college students experiencing homelessness. This point was made in a recent study looking at basic needs and housing instability across the UC system finds that “University basic needs are essential and should be expanded and strengthen to make services more easily accessible” (University of California, 2020).

State law requires higher education homeless liaisons to be identified for each college campus, as well as housing authorities for students experiencing homelessness. The homelessness crisis is prompting postsecondary partners to assemble small teams, including liaisons, to manage the distribution of resources and services, including opening up space for temporary housing both on and off-campus.

Some of those efforts have been accelerated by an annual state $19 million allocation to California’s three public post-secondary systems to be used to support rapid rehousing efforts that assist homeless and housing insecure college students.[5] The state also made a one-time $15 million investment to support basic needs partnerships[6] in the CSU to support the following strategies:

  • Address student hunger
  • Leverage more sustainable solutions to address basic needs on campus
  • Raise awareness of services currently offered on campus that address basic needs
  • Develop formal practices and procedures
  • Continue to build strategic partnerships with community/statewide partners and CSU campuses

No funding was allocated for basic needs at the CCC or CSU systems for the 2020-2021 state budget. However, UC has an ongoing budget allocation for basic needs.

[5] A factsheet about the college-focused rapid rehousing state investment spearheaded by John Burton Advocates can be found at https://www.jbaforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/AB-74-Fact-Sheet-FINAL.pdf
[6] More information on AB 74 and Basic Needs Partnerships can be found at https://www2.calstate.edu/impact-of-the-csu/student-success/basic-needs-initiative/Pages/basic-needs-partnership-rfp.aspx.

A summary of state allocations in recent years can be found in Table 8. Recently, over 700 stakeholders, including over 100 students from all three public higher education segments across the state, convened in a conference and formed a new partnership known as the California Higher Education Basic Needs Alliance (CHEBNA). The partnership has been in operation for several years now, allowing California’s higher education segments to share best practices and resources more consistently and to coordinate around strategies for “addressing student wellbeing, including basic needs insecurities.” CHEBNA started as a conversation around measurement of basic needs and food insecurity. It has evolved as a collaborative to be more intentional about addressing housing insecurity and homelessness as an interrelated set of issues. One university official explained the value of the collaboration.

While you do have some campus specificities, you have some regional differences, you have some political differences in the different environments, there is the commonality, which is the notion that we I think have just begun to understand the real depth and breadth of the issue. That’s partly because we’ve become more aware of the kinds of efforts that each of us are doing.

Table 8. State Investments in Student Basic Needs (Forthcoming Report, John Burton Advocates for Youth, 2020)

California Community Colleges (CCC)California State
University (CSU)
University of
California (UC)
2017/2018$2.5 million$2.5 million$2.5 million
2018/2019$10 million$1.5 million$1.5 million
2019/2020$3.9 million$15 million$15 million (ongoing)
2020/2021NoneNone$15 million

As important as it is to bring about greater coordination in service delivery to students experiencing homelessness, educators must also be able to address other challenges to student wellbeing and engagement to ensure that these students can make academic progress, and ultimately graduate (Crutchfield & Maguire, 2019). One university official stressed this point:

I would like to elevate the conversation in our system to more of a concept of continuity, retention, persistence, graduation, and how to do that.

Although this broadening focus on student basic needs and housing represents a significant expansion in the mission of most colleges and four-year campuses, many higher education partners are embracing this challenge because they understand they can play a critical role in bringing vital resources to students. For three of the students we interviewed, college was the first time they had access to consistent support and stable housing. However, challenges still exist on many campuses to broaden student awareness of available services. For example, Jazmin, a business major, explained:

When I came to college, I was connected to a pantry on campus. When I didn’t have food, when I was facing food insecurity, I was connected with that. And then I was connected with Guardian Scholars as well. But it wasn’t until after I was already in the program I found out that they did the housing, but most of the work, I would say, and the resources that I found were by myself. — Jazmin, 20

Jazmin, a current undergraduate student at a CSU campus in southern California, highlights the necessity for California higher education systems to identify liaisons on every campus who can distribute meal cards for campus meals and coordinate institutional aid for covering student housing deposits. They can also facilitate early connections to local high school districts to identify students in need and provide academic, social, and emotional support to facilitate more seamless transitions for incoming students who are experiencing homelessness. One cannot presume that students like Jazmin will be able to access all of the campus resources available to them without structure and guidance. However, with efforts like CHEBNA and new state investments like the college-focused rapid rehousing effort and basic needs efforts, the higher education community is modeling new ways that college students experiencing homelessness can get resources that will minimize potential hurdles to degree completion.