I. Underlying Challenges Impacting the Academic Success of Students Experiencing Homelessness


Growth in the Numbers of Students Experiencing Homelessness

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (2019), 27% (151,278) of all people experiencing homelessness, and 53% (108,432) of all unsheltered individuals in the United States live in California.[1] The CDE reports that over 269,000 students in kindergarten through 12th-grade experience homelessness. That’s enough young people to fill Dodger Stadium to capacity almost five times. However, there is good reason to suspect that the number of students experiencing homelessness could be considerably higher. For example, a recent survey of 700 school districts in California found that many districts do not accurately report the number of homeless students due to factors such as the population’s underreporting, high degree of mobility, and instability (Piazza & Hyatt, 2019a). The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) employs an alternative approach to estimating the prevalence of teenage homelessness and measuring various characteristics of student homelessness. YBRS, an anonymous, self-reported survey, estimates population rates for high school students impacted by different housing circumstances to be considerably higher than state rates counts (Cutuli et al., 2019). While YRBS only examines high school students self-reporting on homelessness, it suggests that different measurement methods can produce different population estimates.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, California has experienced a 48% increase in student homelessness over the last decade (U.S. Department of Education, 2018; See Figure 1). Such a dramatic increase in students experiencing homelessness has made implementing strategies for reducing the impact of homelessness on student education challenging to accomplish, especially in districts and counties where there is only one homeless liaison. That’s because the responsibilities of a homeless liaison are quite expansive (see page 4), including working directly with families or guardians, child welfare agencies, housing agencies, health care providers, school site leadership, district leadership and others to eliminate any potential academic, social, emotional or health barriers for students. Several district and county homeless liaisons who participated in focus groups for this report indicated that larger school districts need more than one homeless liaison to help identify and serve students and families experiencing homelessness. All districts are required by law to have at least one homeless liaison. However, interviews with homeless liaisons revealed a common theme: that not all schools serving growing numbers of students experiencing homelessness have a school site liaisons to work in coordination with district liaisons, a best practice recommended by both the United States Department of Education and the California Department of Education. This suggests a need for ongoing funding to support a full-time liaison at individual school sites. Even when districts do have designated homeless liaisons, they often have other responsibilities, which makes it difficult for them to perform the complex tasks essential for someone in this role. When liaisons are not present at schools, students experiencing homelessness must rely upon support from district officials (Piazza & Hyatt, 2019a). One district administrator identified a common challenge for the field: most school staff, including school secretaries and counselors, have not received training on how to identify and support students experiencing homelessness. One educator explained,

“Our school secretaries and school counselors need more training on how to correctly identify homeless youth so we can better support our youth.”

Figure 1. Student Homelessness in California
(U.S. Department of Education; 2018)

Note. The decrease in homeless counts during 2009-10 coincide with the implementation of the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), and the dip in 2014-15 coincides with a change in the way homeless data were collected in CALPADS.  Figure 1 enrollment data were retrieved from yearly Consolidated State Performance Reports through the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, 2016.

[1] HUD considers individuals and families sleeping in a place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation (e.g., abandoned buildings, train stations, or camping grounds) as “unsheltered” homeless.


Undercounted Students with Varying Definitions and Understandings of Student Homelessness

Students who experience homelessness, many of whom are Latinx (70%) and Black (9%) (California Department of Education, 2018), and LGBTQ-identifying youth (Morton et al., 2017) face significant hurdles to academic success (Cutuli et al., 2013). Instability in housing can result in lost instructional time due to absences. Homelessness can be closely related to lost instructional time and patterns of chronic absence (Van Eck et al., 2017). For example, a recent study of California districts eligible for additional state funds shows that students experiencing homelessness had the highest rate of chronic absence (Gee & Kim, 2019). One major hurdle to academic success for students experiencing homelessness is schools being unaware that students are experiencing homelessness (California State Auditor, 2019). Going uncounted and sometimes unnoticed because of a lack of awareness is not uncommon for students experiencing homelessness. Students experiencing homelessness and their families are often highly mobile and may also have an immigration status that places them or their families at risk of deportation (Piazza & Hyatt, 2019a; Young III et al., 2018). In one instance, a student shared his experience with becoming “unenrolled” or pushed out by his schools because of chronic absence while homeless. In this instance, the school may have not known how his housing situation was affecting his attendance.

Some families and students do not reveal their living situations because they fear the stigma associated with homelessness, or because they do not understand that they may be eligible for additional educational supports and resources. Students, especially youth who often do not consider themselves as homeless or in crisis may not even see themselves as homeless, though they meet the criteria established by law, because they are living with relatives or friends, albeit under suboptimal circumstances.

One typical response we heard is described by a community based-organization staff who participated in a focus group for this report; she explained the complications with self-identification when students are “doubled up,” or when multiple families are sharing housing.

Many of my students who I know are living with uncles and in bulk houses or in one room of a house don’t consider themselves homeless because they have a place to sleep even if it’s temporary and really uncomfortable…The school and district [does] not ask them specific questions about their living situation. Housing and rent prices are too high. Families are living bunched up on one property.

Varying Federal Definitions of Student Homelessness Impacts Student Identification

A common obstacle when gathering accurate data on the number of students experiencing homelessness is the varying Federal definitions, regulations, and criteria for determining homelessness. Under the Federal McKinney-Vento Act (MVA), for example, a family in a doubled-up living situation due to economic hardship, loss of housing, natural disaster, or living in a motel or hotel, is considered homeless and qualifies for educational supports. However, under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD’s) regulations around MVA, families in doubled-up living situations, or living in motels or hotels are not classified as homeless. Eligibility differences can also limit the support levels, and types of services students and their families can receive. Out of the 269,000 California students currently identified in our education system as experiencing homelessness, fewer than 20% qualify for HUD services. HUD defines homelessness in the following four categories (Table 1).

Understanding the differences between the McKinney-Vento and HUD definitions of homelessness (e.g., motels, hotels and shelters)–presents considerable challenges for educators and advocates in the field who must assess student needs and direct appropriate services for young people.

Table 1. Homeless Definition for HUD and Mc-Kinney Vento Definition

Children and Youth and HUD’s Federal Homeless DefinitionMc-Kinney Vento definition for Early childhood providers and K-12 schools
Category 1: Literal homelessness
Individuals and families who live in a place not meant for human habitation (including the streets or in their car), emergency shelter, transitional housing, and hotels paid for by a government or charitable organization.

Category 2: Imminent risk of homelessness
Individuals or families who will lose their primary nighttime residence within 14 days and has no other resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.

Category 3: Homeless under other federal statutes
Unaccompanied youth under 25 years of age, or families with children and youth, who do not meet any of the other categories but are homeless under other federal statutes, have not had a lease and have moved 2 or more times in the past 60 days and are likely to remain unstable because of special needs or barriers.[2]

Category 4: Fleeing/ Attempting to Flee
Domestic Violence

Individuals or families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking and who lack resources and support networks to obtain other permanent housing.
1. Children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason;
2. Children and youths who may be living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, shelters;
3. Children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings
4. Children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings, or;
Migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are children who are living in similar circumstances listed above.

Students must lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence to qualify as homeless.

[2] An unaccompanied youth is a young person, not in the physical custody of their parent or guardian. A homeless unaccompanied youth is one that meets that definition as well as the definition of homelessness.