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Youth Experiencing Homelessness
California’s Education System for K–12 Inadequately Identifies
and Supports These Youth

Report Number: 2019-104



In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) determined that about half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness on a given night. HUD further reported that more people in California experience homelessness than in any other state in the nation. Among the Californians experiencing homelessness are a significant number of unaccompanied youth and families with children. In the 2017–18 academic year, the latest year for which cumulative data about those experiencing homelessness are available, California’s local educational agencies (LEAs)–school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education—identified more than 269,000 such youth, or about 4 percent of the State’s student population in kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12). However, according to a 2019 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Homeless Youth Project, survey responses that they received from almost 700 California LEAs indicated that LEAs in California are almost certainly not identifying all such youth.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education—an organization that operates a technical assistance center for the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED)—homelessness negatively affects a youth’s development and academic performance. For example, research on homelessness found that youth who experience homelessness are more likely to be chronically absent, fail courses, have disciplinary issues, and drop out of high school than other youth. Further, a national homelessness and poverty working group found that these youth are twice as likely to have learning disabilities and three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than their peers who are not experiencing homelessness. Moreover, according to a 2017 report by the University of Chicago, adults who do not have a high school diploma or the equivalent are nearly five times more likely to experience homelessness than those who completed high school.

The McKinney-Vento Act defines youth experiencing homelessness as those lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and includes children and youth who meet the following criteria:

Source: Federal law.

Federal Law Provides Benefits for Youth Who Are Experiencing Homelessness

In 1987 Congress recognized that the problem of homelessness had become increasingly severe and established an act that became known as the McKinney‑Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney‑Vento Act), which coordinates resources and programs for those experiencing homelessness, with an emphasison families with children. The McKinney‑Vento Act defines youth experiencing homelessness as the text box describes and sets forth requirements and responsibilities for states and LEAs in identifying and supporting these youth.

To administer and oversee states' homeless education programs, the McKinney‑Vento Act requires states to designate an Office of the Coordinator for Education of Homeless Children and Youth (state coordinator). The McKinney‑Vento Act also requires each LEA to designate an LEA liaison (local liaison) for its youth experiencing homelessness. Further, local liaisons are responsible for ensuring that school personnel identify these youth and provide them with educationally related support services, such as tutoring, transportation, school supplies, food, and counseling, to aid them in meeting the same academic standards as other students. The McKinney‑Vento Act also authorizes grant funds that the federal government awards to states to assist with homeless education activities. In academic year 2018–19, California received nearly $10.6 million of these federal grant funds.

Moreover, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended and reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, establishes, among other provisions, the goal of providing all children an opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high‑quality education and to close educational achievement gaps. Specifically, state educational agencies must ensure that all students, including youth experiencing homelessness, have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education as other children. In this regard, ESEA requires state educational agencies, including the California Department of Education (Education), to provide support to LEAs in the identification, enrollment, attendance, and provision of a stable school environment for youth experiencing homelessness. To receive federal assistance, each state must submit a plan (state plan) that describes how the state intends to implement various federal requirements for each program covered by ESEA, including the one established by the McKinney‑Vento Act—what educational experts commonly refer to as the homeless education program. Therefore, a portion of the state plan must include strategies to address challenges that youth experiencing homelessness face with enrollment, attendance, and academic success. The state coordinator is responsible for implementing the portion of the state plan that pertains to homeless education.

Education and LEAs Each Have a Role in Identifying and Serving Youth Experiencing Homelessness

The state coordinator is responsible for a variety of activities to administer and oversee the State’s homeless education program. These responsibilities include collecting and publicizing the data on youth experiencing homelessness that the nearly 2,300 LEAs identify, providing technical assistance and training opportunities to LEAs on identifying and providing services to these youth, and monitoring LEAs’ compliance with federal laws.At the beginning and end of each academic year, Education requires LEAs to report the number of youth they have identified as experiencing homelessness through the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), a system composed of student demographic and enrollment data. In addition, the state coordinator must coordinate activities and collaborate with providers of services to these youth; community organizations and groups that represent the youth; and educators, such as teachers, school administrators, and child development personnel. As of June 2019, the state coordinator had two full‑time staff members and one part‑time staff member to administer the State’s program.

Under federal law, local liaisons are primarily responsible for ensuring that their schools’ personnel identify youth experiencing homelessness, receive training, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and coordinate with other agencies. Local liaisons help ensure that these youth receive equal access to the same free, appropriate public education as other youth. Further, federal law requires local liaisons to inform the families of such youth of their educational rights and the services available to them. School staff, including teachers, counselors, and cafeteria workers, are most likely to identify youth experiencing homelessness because of their daily interactions with students. To assure that LEAs identify all these youth, federal law requires local liaisons to coordinate with school staff to provide them with resources and training about homeless education.

The U.S. ED has established nonregulatory guidance, and it funds the National Center for Homeless Education to provide technical assistance to states and to establish additional best practices for states and LEAs to reference in administering their homeless education programs. For the purposes of this report, we refer to the U.S. ED’s nonregulatory guidance and the National Center for Homeless Education’s best practices as best practices. These best practices highlight the need for LEAs to ensure that local liaisons have sufficient capacity—that is, the knowledge, skills, resources, and authority—to carry out their duties.

Federal law requires or allows LEAs to provide various services and resources to youth experiencing homelessness, including but not limited to the following:



Source: Federal law and best practices.

Education and LEAs Receive Funds From Several Sources to Support Homeless Education

To support states’ efforts to ensure that all children meet certain academic standards, the U.S. ED annually allocates federal Title I funds to states to carry out their state plans, including homeless education activities. States distribute a certain percentage of these funds directly to LEAs. Additionally, federal law requires LEAs to set aside a portion of these federal funds necessary to support youth experiencing homelessness. LEAs may use Title I funds to provide the services and resources in the text box to these youth. LEAs may also use federal funds to provide school staff with training to heighten their understanding of and sensitivity to the needs and rights of these youth. Finally, LEAs may use funds for parental outreach and community education about the rights of and resources available to youth experiencing homelessness; to coordinate with other schools and agencies that provide services to these youth; and to conduct outreach to students living in shelters, motels, or other temporary residences.

In addition, states receive federal grants under the McKinney‑Vento Act to support the identification of youth experiencing homelessness and to provide them access to the services they need. States may use up to 25 percent of the grant funds for state‑level activities and not less than 75 percent of the funds to competitively award grants to LEAs. California has established a competitive grant process that allows LEAs to apply for awards ranging from $15,000 to $250,000 per year. An LEA must have identified at least 50 students who are experiencing homelessness to be eligible for the grant awards. Alternately, multiple LEAs can form a consortium to meet this requirement. Education awards its selected grantees grant amounts based on specific factors, including the number of youth they have identified as experiencing homelessness. As Figure 1 shows, of the nearly $10.6 million it received in academic year 2018–19 as McKinney‑Vento Act grants, Education awarded about $8.7 million in competitive grants to LEAs. In that year, only 130 of the nearly 2,300 LEAs in California applied for grants and 73 received awards.

Figure 1
In Academic Year 2018–19, Education Budgeted Most of the Federal McKinney‑Vento Act Funds It Received for Awards to LEAs

A flowchart describing Education’s budgeted distribution of the federal McKinney-Vento Act funds it received in academic year 2018-19.

Source: U.S. ED and Education’s academic year 2018–19 Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program Funding Results.

Note: This figure presents appropriated and budgeted amounts, not actuals. Education was not able to provide actual expenditures for academic year 2018–19 because, as of October 2019, it had not finalized its accounting records for that year.

* In academic year 2018–19, Education budgeted 5.5% of the federal McKinney‑Vento Act funds it received for administration of the homeless education program.

In academic year 2018–19, Education provided one‑time grants to county offices of education, in part, to provide countywide activities, such as training and technical assistance to all local homeless liaisons. Education also provided one‑time grants to three individual LEAs.

Education requires LEAs that have identified fewer than 50 youth as experiencing homelessness to apply for the grant as a consortium—a combination of LEAs—to meet the application criteria. In academic year 2018–19, Education awarded funds to one consortium, which consisted of five LEAs. We present this consortium as a single entity in the figure above.

In addition to federal funds, LEAs in California receive state and local funds to support their homeless education programs based on factors such as the percentage of their students who are economically disadvantaged. LEAs can also receive contributions from individuals or homeless service organizations. For example, best practices state that in order to ensure that LEAs do not prevent youth experiencing homelessness from participating in extracurricular activities because of the associated costs, such as purchasing sports uniforms or band instruments. Local liaisons can seek sponsorships to cover these costs from parent groups, civic organizations, and local businesses. In addition, local liaisons can collaborate with food banks or nutritional service organizations to provide youth and families experiencing homelessness with food outside of the school setting. Finally, local liaisons can work with community‑based organizations and public agencies to provide these youth with school uniforms to ensure that their inability to purchase uniforms does not create an enrollment barrier.

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