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Homelessness and the COVID-19 Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic and the homelessness crisis in California will likely result in greater challenges facing students and families experiencing homelessness. Across California and the entire nation, schools closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year to prevent the spread of the virus. While this is an important step to protect public health, it increases the challenges for students who depend on the support of their local schools and community centers, including a safe place for students to learn during the day, adequate technology, internet access, and free school meals. In addition, the Shelter at Home orders surfaced additional public health challenges for students who experience housing instability.

Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), a $2 trillion package that includes a wide range of funding and policy measures to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, including to address the early care, education, and emergency housing needs of children, youth, and families (Schoolhouse Connection, 2020). The CARES Act represents the type of comprehensive responses required by policymakers to mitigate the effects of poverty broadly and student homelessness more directly. Many of the public policy challenges that existed before COVID-19 now require more aggressive solutions from those in government to reduce the educational, social and health disparities accelerated by the virus. Moving forward, lawmakers at each level of government have a distinct responsibility to address historic patterns of inequality, requiring greater coordination and stronger political leadership to address the crisis of student homelessness.

For latest updates on COVID-19, follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

List of COVID-19 Resources for students, educators and service providers

This interactive map on student homelessness in K-12 schools in California shines a light on the staggering number of young people impacted by housing instability across all 58 counties during the 2018-2019 and 2017-2018 academic years. Modest estimates show that over 200,000 students are homeless in California, a number that keeps increasing, higher than any other state in the country. COVID-19 has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing inequities apparent by race and income. The CA order to stay at home assumes access to shelter or a fixed housing location. However, as data presented in this map indicates, estimates suggest that over 200,000 students are being profoundly affected by housing instability, a number that will likely increase as a result of job instability and unemployment related to the virus. We share this map during this time to illustrate the challenges counties and districts are facing and as a way to identify policy solutions to better support students experiencing homelessness in the Golden State.

The map captures county profiles, with data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Patterns in state data show the relationship between student homelessness and key school climate and academic readiness indicators including: suspension rates, chronic absenteeism rates, graduation rates and students who graduate UC/CSU eligible. This map informs a California statewide report from our Center on student homelessness to be released in the coming weeks in partnership with the California Department of Education and the Newsom Administration.

Click on a county below to learn more. The 10 counties with the highest counts of California students experiencing homelessness are shaded darker:


The Challenge

Students experiencing homelessness often face major hurdles to academic success.  Many young people don’t receive support because their schools often are not aware they are experiencing homelessness, according to a recent state audit.  Feelings of fear, shame and a lack of understanding about what services students and families are eligible to receive if identified by their school can limit the accuracy of any student counts. Additionally, many schools, particularly those that serve the largest number of homeless students, lack the resources to respond to their multifaceted needs. Student and family immigration status and several other factors can also affect homeless counts. As the interactive data and county profiles make clear, Black and Latinx students are more likely to experience homelessness compared to students of other racial and ethnic groups.

Understanding Homelessness

In California schools, school officials follow the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney-Vento Act) (42 U.S.C. § 11431-11435) to identify students experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act, suggests all school-aged children experiencing homelessness have access to the same free, appropriate public education that is provided to non-homeless youth. Students are eligible for McKinney Vento if they lack a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence. This definition also includes:

  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, and 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 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;

  5. Migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are children who are living in similar circumstances listed above.

Even within this broad definition, many school officials fail to identify students who are experiencing homelessness. Families and students who are in doubled-up housing often go unidentified because they may not be aware that they are eligible to receive support.

Below are the top 10 counties with the highest counts of California students experiencing homelessness.

Students Experiencing Homelessness for Counties with Highest Number of Homeless Students

Select an academic year:
2017-2018   2018-2019


# of Total

# of Students Experiencing Homelessness

% of Homeless Students

Los Angeles




San Bernardino








San Diego
















Santa Barbara












Notes: Changes in the 2018-‘19 school year from the 2017-‘18 school year include an overall increase in the number of homeless students by 2,357 from 64,209 to 66,566in Los Angeles. San Diego county surpassed Riverside county. Monterey county surpassed Santa Barbara county. Butte county saw a growth of 4,272 students experiencing homelessness from 1,366 in 2017-18 to 5,638 surpassing Kern county. While the total number of students decreased from 2017-’18 to 2018-’19, the overall number of students experiencing homelessness increased.

Rate of Students Experiencing Homelessness by Race and Ethnicity for Counties with Highest Number of Homeless Students

Select an academic year:
2017-2018   2018-2019

% By Race/Ethnicity


American Indian or Alaska Native




Pacific Islander


Two or More Races

Not Reported

Los Angeles

12.10% 0.20% 3.50% 1.60% 73.70% 0.40% 5.90% 1.80% 0.70%

San Bernardino

11.60% 0.60% 2.90% 0.90% 69.50% 0.50% 10.40% 2.40% 1.30%


2.00% 0.30% 4.00% 1.10% 83.00% 0.60% 7.20% 1.50% 0.50%

San Diego

8.60% 0.80% 2.10% 3.00% 69.80% 0.70% 9.60% 4.60% 0.90%


10.90% 0.50% 0.90% 0.80% 72.30% 0.70% 10.70% 2.90% 0.30%


24.30% 1.20% 3.90% 0.80% 36.70% 1.40% 22.10% 8.70% 0.90%


0.80% 0.30% 0.50% 0.80% 91.60% 0.40% 4.00% 1.20% 0.40%

Santa Barbara

0.60% 0.20% 0.60% 0.60% 92.60% N/A 4.40% 0.60% N/A


1.50% N/A 1.00% 1.80% 82.90% 0.20% 11.10% 1.50% N/A


1.70% 2.20% 1.30% 0.30% 16.10% 0.20% 70.30% 6.90% 0.90%

Learn about our methodology.

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