School Staff are Critical in Identifying Student Homelessness: Lessons from LBUSD

By Lorena Camargo Gonzalez, Doctoral Researcher for UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools & Dr. Erin M. Simon, Assistant Superintendent – School Support Services at Long Beach Unified School District; ACSA State Vice President; and Adjunct Professor at San Diego State University

A recent report from UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools’ found that over 269,000 CA K-12 students experienced homelessness in the 2018-2019 academic year. Homeless liaisons play a vital role in supporting students experiencing housing instability; however, not all school sites have the capacity and resources to have a liaison on-site. As mandated by the McKinney-Vento Act (MKV), Local Education Agencies (LEAs) are tasked with designating a homeless liaison to ensure students experiencing homelessness receive the same educational opportunities as non-homeless students and that any barriers to learning are eliminated. However, a 2019 report revealed that many CA K-12 homeless liaisons lack the resources and capacity to effectively support and identify the rapid number of students experiencing housing instability. 

Before the pandemic, the identification of homeless students was already a challenge and with no end in sight, the number of students facing homelessness is expected to grow. During this unprecedented time, MKV district homeless liaisons must no longer work in isolation. District staff can play a vital role in the identification of students experiencing homelessness upon returning to in-person instruction. Due to the lengthy social, emotional, and economic stresses endured by students and their families from COVID‐19, the urgency around properly identifying students experiencing homelessness is greater than before.

In Los Angeles County, large school districts such as Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) have been recognized for their proactive response to the needs of students experiencing homelessness by providing meals, clothing, cleaning, tutoring, and counseling that reduce barriers to learning. Currently, LBUSD is re-imagining its response to the crisis via a range of promising practices to meet challenges associated with student homelessness. 

LBUSD has provided training to select staff to build awareness about student homelessness and fulfill the requirements of MKV. Training will continue to be centered around equity while educating about the nuanced definition of homelessness, how to identify students facing homelessness and report their homeless status, resources available for homeless students, and trauma-informed practices. In addition to training all school site administrators prior to the return of students to in-person instruction, the district will be expanding its training to include the following key staff:

  1. School bus drivers are first to greet students before they arrive at school. They can identify students who are not properly dressed or are being dropped off or picked up at bus stations by an adult other than their parent or guardian, and can inform school staff if a student is no longer residing in their place of residence.
  2. Enrollment clerks, among the first point of contact when families register their children for school, can look for initial signs of homelessness or displacement, which may include a parent’s or guardian’s inability to provide enrollment documents [i.e. utility bill,  birth certificate, immunization records]. Additionally, enrollment clerks are first to review the enrollment packet which includes the district’s Student Housing Questionnaire (SHQ) that inquires about additional barriers to education a student may be facing (i.e., uniforms, school supplies, academic support, transportation, access to community services, counseling, etc.). 
  3. Teachers have the capacity to build great trust with their students and communicate directly with families. Given fear of stigmas of homelessness, parents and or guardians may not share their housing status with other school officials. By building trust with students and families, teachers can be among the first to identify students who may be experiencing homelessness. 
  4. School counselors and school psychologists provide indirect services for students such as coordinating programs, assessments, or providing referrals to community-based agencies. Once students are identified as homeless, they can also provide appropriate social, emotional, and behavioral counseling (i.e., mindfulness, coping skills, managing anxiety, self-regulation at home) to support the emotional development of such students.
  5. Nutrition food services staff have routine contact with students, up to two times per day. Such staff should be trained to look for indicators that a student may be experiencing homelessness, such as not having any funds to purchase a meal, desiring more food than is offered in the regular meal, or begging for food from other students.  

The highlighted staff are pivotal in not only transporting, teaching, feeding, and welcoming students at school; they are critical in leveraging a coordinated and unified approach to identification, outreach, and supporting students who are experiencing homelessness. This is not an exhaustive list of staff who should be trained in identifying housing insecurity among students; however, these staff interact with students frequently and can help students enroll in school immediately, attend regularly, and succeed socially, emotionally, and academically. Finally, having school-based staff trained to better support students experiencing homelessness is just one of the ways we can collectively work towards ending homelessness. Additional resources and funding is needed at the federal and state levels in order to more effectively address and end this growing crisis.