Voice of San Diego’s recent series on South Bay’s hidden homelessness crisis explored an important topic — one that unfortunately is not limited to the southern part of the county. Students in nearly every school district in the county are affected by homelessness, and too often they are invisible victims.

Commentary - in-story logoOne place where these children are visible, though, is school. Indeed, education is the best route out of homelessness, but schools need much more funding and support.

School districts are required to identify students experiencing homelessness, which is why we know that in San Diego County, there were more than 22,000 students in this situation in the 2015-16 school year.

Identifying students who are homeless is not easy.

Homelessness among students is not a uniform experience. Some children are homeless with their parents who may have lost their housing after experiencing a job loss, an unexpected tragedy or illness, a natural disaster or trauma related to violence or substance abuse. These families may be living temporarily in shelters, hotels or motels. On average, 75 percent to 80 percent of families identified as homeless are doubled-up, living in the home of a friend or relative.

These many variances make it extremely difficult to draw conclusions when comparing data across districts, counties or even states. We know for sure that all schools are impacted and carry a tremendous responsibility because they may be the only place a family is able to find resources and assistance.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

As Voice of San Diego explained, the definition of homelessness under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development differs from the Department of Education’s definition. Fortunately, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is working to eliminate this conflict with The Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2017, which would align service eligibility under both definitions.

No standardized system exists for how districts identify students experiencing homelessness, only the requirement that they must identify them. How a district identifies students experiencing homelessness varies and depends heavily on funding the district receives to support the work, the amount of training the assigned liaison and school site employees have received and the amount of resources a district dedicates to the outreach to find such families.

The San Diego County Office of Education’s Homeless Education Services program is charged with providing technical assistance and support to the county’s 42 school districts. A crucial part of that work involves helping districts better identify and serve children and their families experiencing homelessness.

That is important, because identifying students who are homeless is only the first step.

Where school districts are making significant strides to identify homeless students, they are working with community partners, conducting extensive outreach, providing fast and responsive support and are asking the right questions. Such districts approach the task through an education lens – educating families that identification means support, not judgment.

For example, Vista Unified has a multilayered approached to identifying families. Its outreach efforts are deep and wide, working with family resource centers, cross-checking with state pupil data and hosting a program for pregnant and parenting teens. The district tracks and updates its information frequently, and its process is consistent across school sites. When extraordinary efforts are being made to identify homeless families, the more homeless families you will find.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides a set of entitlements for students and a structure for how schools must address the challenges associated with homelessness. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the law further requires school districts to remove barriers to enrollment, attendance and success, as well as provide school stability despite a child’s lack of a consistent home.

Removing barriers can be as simple as changing enrollment and registration materials or as complicated as formalizing cost-sharing arrangements among districts to provide transportation for students experiencing homelessness. Funding for these type of programs is a constant concern. Limited federal funds mean districts must also apply through their state for special grants and hope for the best. The reality is that fewer than 70 of California’s 1,025 school districts – just 6.8 percent – were awarded these grants in the current funding cycle.

California has more students experiencing homelessness than any other state. It is clear that our state needs significantly more funding allocated to school districts to mitigate the impact of homelessness on students academically and socially. Passing legislation to help youth experiencing homelessness, yet not fully funding the agencies tasked with carrying it out is madness. Leaving schools districts alone to address the issue of homelessness and its impact on students is unacceptable.

While municipalities across the region, state and country continue to struggle with addressing the root causes of homelessness, schools are dealing with the consequences. As such, they must be active partners in efforts to provide the homeless with a way up and out of these circumstances. With the appropriate supports and resources in place, we can help these students escape their current situation and do more than survive. They can thrive, but only if we support local, state and federal efforts to provide adequate funding for this important work.

Michelle Lustig is the director of the San Diego County Office of Education’s foster youth services coordinating program and homeless education. Lustig’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Opinion, School Finances, South Bay

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    3 comments
    Jay Byrd
    Jay Byrd

    Can I be the only person who thinks there is no real solution to homelessness? Once the city starts down that path, there will be no end to the amount of money it will spend.  The ones they help will expect more.  The more they give, the more people people will migrate here for the shelter.  Bottomless pit.  I offer no solution because there is none that will not bankrupt the city.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Schools are already participants in this homeless crisis by circumstances. And, schools are not getting any help to do so. Homelessness is just another in a pile of imperatives thrown to schools. So, the single identifier, the single possible solution is an office at each school that deals with social issues. That system has already proven to be successful in some high schools in Los Angeles.  Parents and children have a place to be informed at each school. School secretaries, school nurses, and other adjunct administrative personnel cannot deal with these issues effectively. A central office of information would help bridge the huge gap between the exigencies of the school and the demands of the family are involved. 

      Yes. You are correct. For twenty-seven years, as a classroom teacher, I was, indeed, in many cases the surrogate parent for some of my charges. Did I get paid more for that? No. Was it explicitly in my contract? No. Were there inherent risks to myself? Yes. But, I was obliged to take care of the children on my roster. I became, in many instances, the go-to person to assist families to find appropriate services. That is not the role of a teacher, not in the job description. 

         What is often missed in the negative press against teachers is that teachers realize they are coaches of a 9 or 10 month lasting team. There are as many as 30 individuals at ages 5 thru 9 that must achieve under extraordinary circumstances. And, it all must be accomplished in less than 6 hours per day. Each child comes to school with a myriad of social issues,from a slight sniffle to a full blown problem. And, it's the teacher that is on the receiving end of all of it. 

           Boo, hoo. Teachers get paid. Right. Teachers get paid to follow Ed Code which is as thick as three old telephone books and their contract, which says nothing about caring for the children. Doctors deal with vast regulations, but are greatly compensated for their risks. Teachers? ....not so much. 

            Teachers shoulder or they assume shouldering the responsibility of "educating" their charges according to the curriculum, the State, and other imponderables. In other words, they do more. So, why don't Marines get criticized? Good question. Teachers just don't happen to carry weapons of mass destruction. They carry...wait for it....love. That is something unquantifiable, ...yet necessary. Without concern for each student, in the final analysis, really no academic progress occurs. But, Betsy DeVos thinks that teachers are money grubbing hordes. ...Ms. DeVos is....wrong. 

             The things that make our country different are the things that make all other countries envious. And, teachers are at that historical, philosophical crossroads. And, they should be celebrated, not berated. 

               Schools are taking on much more of a social benefit than ever before. And, schools, teachers must be compensated for the efforts to assist children and families achieve. Anything less is, well,....less. I really don't think General Patton would align with "less".

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    I would think draining the Public Education swamp would more of a help to the homeless. An alter to organized labor where sermons regarding non-accountability are regularly preached seems like the last thing the disenfranchised need.