Where Do Homeless Kids Go To School?

by Carol Kocivar | September 30, 2019 | 1 Comment
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What Can We Do to Help?

Imagine a student at your school who lives in a car, or a shelter or park. Or maybe the student sleeps on a relative's sofa or has resorted to spending a night at the bus station. This happens in school districts throughout California.

According to Kidsdata, about 4.4% of public school students are homeless. The percentage varies dramatically by location. Calaveras County, for example, has a rate of almost 20 per cent while Santa Clara County is well below 2%. You can find the data for each county here. Even in the most affluent areas, there are homeless children.

An estimated 246,000 California public school students experienced homelessness in the 2015-16 school year. Of those, nearly 7,500 students were unsheltered, 17,000 were in shelters, 11,000 were in hotels/motels, and 211,00 were doubled up. (Note: counts can vary based on definitions.)

Homeless students in California

Data from KidsCount Public School Students in California, by Nighttime Residence, 2015-16. Estimate from Kidsdata, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Chidren's Health.

The map below, from EdSource, shows the level of homelessness in each school in California. Red shows homeless hotspots and green indicates lower levels of homelessness. (Rural homelessness is easy to see in the state-level view; to see detail in areas of high population density click the image and zoom in.)

Data about the education of homeless students is gradually improving because in 2019 the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), America's federal education law, began requiring states to report data for the first time. Official Federal estimates of homelessness differ somewhat from the KidsData figures. There is reason to believe the official federal numbers underestimate the extent of student homelessness.

Homeless Students in School

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act and California law, homeless students get special protections to make sure they have access to public education. A lot of red tape is waived for these students. For example, they can enroll immediately without the documents normally required for enrollment, such as proof of residency, immunization records, and school records.

About half of homeless students in California are in elementary school grades.

Every school district must designate staff to help homeless students. These liaisons work to ensure that the rights of homeless students are protected. These include the right to:

  • Participate in school activities;
  • Receive transportation to and from the school of origin if requested;
  • Attend school where last enrolled (even if the student is living outside that attendance area;
  • Automatically qualify for school nutrition programs; and
  • Take an extra year to graduate from high school.

The role of homeless liaison may be assigned to an administrator, a counselor, or another staff member — to find the person with this responsibility at your school, ask at the principal's office. (You can also check the list of liaisons reported to the state, but it's not always up to date.)

Source: Kidsdata, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health.

The Role of the School District Homeless Liaison

Homeless students need special help. They are dealing with poverty, trauma, family instability, lack of sleep and many other issues. The school district liaison and staff at school sites provide a wide variety of supports.

First, of course, is identifying homeless students and ensuring they are enrolled in school. Beyond that, liaisons help students get appropriate educational services, including Head Start, and provide referrals for health, dental, mental health and substance abuse, and housing services. Among their other responsibilities:

  • Inform parents or guardians of their children’s educational opportunities
  • Ensure that disputes over eligibility, school selection, or enrollment are mediated
  • Inform parents or guardians about available transportation services and assist in accessing transportation to school;
  • Make sure unaccompanied homeless youth receive additional help, such as verifying their independent status for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Schools must provide public notice regarding the education of homeless students in locations frequented by parents, guardians, and unaccompanied homeless youth. Outreach posters are available in English and other languages from the California Department of Education.

In addition, the California Department of Education provides a comprehensive list of strategies to help liaisons in the areas of transportation, identification, Title I, enrollment, preschool, and special education.

Homeless Students and the LCAP

Homeless students get special attention in a school district's Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). Each plan must describe the goals and specific actions to achieve those goals for all students and each student group— including homeless youth.

The achievement of homeless students shows up as a subgroup on the California school dashboard.

How You Can Help

First, ask you school site liaison what support would help. Here are some ideas:

  • Help create family nights to offer health checks, services, and resources.
  • Start a food bank on the school site.

Want some examples of what other communities have done? Check these:

If your school or district is doing something great to help these students, please let us know. Homelessness affects everyone in California. We want to share ideas to help our readers throughout the state.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 5, 2019 at 8:25 pm
I know an affluent family who spent the last few months living in a hotel while they were “between rentals.” I never thought of them as homeless, but of course they were. It is interesting to think about in light of statistics.
©2003-2019 Jeff Camp
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