Most of us have become uncomfortably aware of the increase of homelessness in San Diego. More families are sliding into homelessness, and we see the steady increase of young and seemingly healthy individuals sleeping on our sidewalks, and begging for money on many of our street corners. What we may not see however, is the increasing number of children experiencing homelessness, because these families are either living in their cars, motels, parks, and tents or staying at overcrowded local shelters. They are expected to get up every morning and go to school. We can only imagine how difficult that would be.
Research shows that child homelessness has a negative impact on child development, and troubling reports from the National Center on Family Homelessness state that homeless children are eight times more likely to be asked to repeat a grade, three times more likely to be placed in special education classes and twice as likely to score lower on standardized tests. Homelessness for children means more than lack of a stable place to live; it also means more health problems, failing education, and possible chronic homelessness. These students face a range of problems regarding schooling, from finding a way to get to school, to having the appropriate clothing and finding a quiet place to study.
There is one piece of very important federal legislation, sometimes unknown to the general public, which is called McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2002, that explicitly addresses the needs and concerns of homeless students. The legislation encourages states to provide homeless students with the same appropriate public education as their peers, including preschool, received by other students within the school environment. It guarantees homeless children and youths certain rights, and allows them to enroll in school immediately. The law requires states to revise regulations that may serve as barriers for the homeless students; however numerous educational barriers continue to exist.
Although the implementation and funding of McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2002 increased awareness among schools and communities, main barriers such as lack of funding, difficulty identifying and tracking homeless students, staff turnover, and high staff to student ratios continues to be problematic. These children are highly mobile and it sometimes becomes difficult to provide services as transportation has historically been the number one barrier to enrollment of homeless students.
Increased efforts are needed for outreach to shelters, and an improved system needs to be developed to track this very vulnerable population in order to provide essential academic services and stability during a time of chaos. It is also essential to improve the accuracy in reporting of homeless children since it increases the chances of federal funding to support these students.
San Diego Unified School District serves more than 5,000 homeless students each year between preschool and high school, but they are likely undercounted and under identified partly because shelters are limited and full, or the families are avoiding services due to social stigma associated with homelessness. Homeless families don’t always draw attention to their situation; sometimes the district finds out about homelessness from a social service agency or hopefully identifies it when a student registers for school.