Lawmakers at every level of government have a role to play in tackling the student homelessness crisis.
By Joseph Bishop
Joseph Bishop is the director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools, UCLA, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, Special to CalMatters
Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez is president of the California School Boards Association, email@example.com.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, little attention has been paid to the plight of students without any homes or unstable housing.
Our research at UCLA shows that more than 269,000 K-12 students are experiencing homelessness in California, the highest number in the country, and a figure so large it could fill Dodger Stadium five times over.
Lawmakers at every level of government have a role to play in tackling the student homelessness crisis, especially the more than 5,000 California school board members who govern more than 1,000 school districts and county offices of education.
Student homelessness has increased by 48% in California over the past decade. Seven out of 10 California students grappling with homelessness are Latinx and a disproportionate number of Black youth find themselves in similar circumstances.
Homelessness is not unique to K-12 schools, affecting 1 in 5 community college students, 1 in 10 California State University students, and 1 in 20 UC students are experiencing homelessness. These are alarming numbers, but they likely underestimate the severity of the problem, because limited resources prevent schools and other agencies from accurately identifying all students experiencing homelessness. And with some of the highest unemployment numbers in 50 years confronting us and no clear end in sight to COVID-19-related restrictions, we should expect the number of students facing homelessness to grow.
Even as we prepare for tough budget decisions ahead, with less state money and limited federal support, here are five things school board members can do as soon as they take office or start a new term to prioritize the academic success and health of students experiencing homelessness.
- Familiarize yourself with student homelessness numbers in your county and district. We developed this interactive map to show the racial realities of homelessness for each county and to highlight differences in educational outcomes and college readiness for students who are unhoused.
- Connect with your district and county homeless liaison and ask to speak with students and families experiencing homelessness in your community. Liaisons shoulder the primary responsibility for eliminating educational barriers for students experiencing homelessness, ensuring school stability and academic support, coordinating housing services and providing transportation for young people. They can provide immediate insights into how your district and board can be more helpful, acting as a bridge between students and the board.
- Help broker conversations and open doors between cities, school districts, colleges and counties to provide and coordinate access to resources to support students and families experiencing homelessness. Such conversations can lead to the support of after-school programming and community services from businesses, faith-based organizations and nonprofits, and can help improve coordination across city departments and neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by housing instability.
- Facilitate conversations with your colleagues on the board and district about the connection between race, homelessness and education. Latinx (70%) and Black (9%) students who are experiencing homelessness are almost twice as likely to be suspended or miss an extended period of school to absenteeism, experience lower graduation rates and to be less ready for college than their non-homeless peers (27%). The intersection of poor educational outcomes and homelessness present within schools cannot be overlooked and should be explored more deliberately to change existing patterns of inequality.
- Make the educational success of students experiencing homelessness a top policy priority in your community. This can be reflected in the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, city economic development goals and the sharing of community-wide strategies for identifying and serving students experiencing homelessness.
Schools and school boards play a pivotal role in bringing services, resources and academic support to students to improve their ability to get educated, find employment and improve their quality of life.
Student homelessness is a problem that cannot be solved by educational institutions alone. This is a crisis that deserves the attention and immediate action of lawmakers at every level of government, especially school board members.