sketchy digital illustration of a young woman's face on a brick wall
Stopping the stigma typography

Supporting students experiencing homelessness

By Heather Kemp

An estimated 187,298 young people, or 3.2 percent of the state’s 5.85 million students, experienced homelessness last year, according to data from the 2023 California School Dashboard.

An increase from 171,714 (2.9 percent) in 2022, this often overlooked and undercounted student group is one of the most in need of support both academically and personally, and local educational agencies such as Long Beach Unified School District, Sacramento City USD, Wheatland Union High School District and San Diego County Office of Education are answering the call.

Children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence are considered homeless, per The McKinney-Vento Act. This includes those sharing housing due to economic hardship or other challenges (commonly called doubling-up), living at motels/hotels, campgrounds, emergency/transitional shelters or in vehicles, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or public/private spaces not designed for regular sleeping accommodation.

At CSBA’s 2023 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show in November, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that in early 2024 he intends to introduce legislation “to provide more housing units and wraparound supports” for students experiencing homelessness.


roviding these students with services or connecting them with resources to help meet their basic needs is crucial as research has linked student homelessness to attendance issues, lower academic achievement and increasing rates of out-of-school suspensions as well as various socio-emotional risks. However, barriers to identification remain an issue as does stigma.

California LEAs regardless of size and region are continuing to evolve their programs to address community needs and implement evidence-based practices to support their homeless populations.

Promising programs
At Wheatland Union HSD, a rural district located in Yuba County that has just over 1,100 students enrolled, the Safe Harbor program offers tiered supports for current and former foster youth, migrant students, students on probation and those experiencing homelessness.

Aleia Lund, director of community schools and foster and homeless youth liaison, said that about 5.2 percent of local students qualify for the program and 2.6 percent of students qualify as homeless.

“The number of students who have qualified as homeless has increased 750 percent since 2018,” Lund noted. “While this is partially due to the fact that our population has grown, we also have made a districtwide effort to identify our students who qualify as homeless, and numbers have grown that way. We have identified many students who have experienced homelessness all their lives, but only get formally qualified for McKinney-Vento when they come to our high school district.”

Some of the Tier 1 services offered to all students in the LEA include transportation, tutoring, career and college centers, an after-school program, lessons in social-emotional learning and on-campus access to medical and dental care, food, clothing and laundry machines. All Safe Harbor students are invited to a monthly breakfast and team-building field trips, referred to small counseling/therapy groups and have a dedicated school counselor, supported in obtaining documents and applying for scholarships and generally have other barriers to education removed or addressed. More targeted support like family therapy is offered in Tier 3 as needed.

“Rural homelessness looks different from urban homelessness because 90 percent of our students who qualify are doubled up, which means their housing insecurity can often go unnoticed — and families are hesitant to indicate that they do not have stable housing.”

— Aleia Lund, director of community schools and foster and homeless youth liaison, Wheatland Union HSD

Lund started the program around three years ago when she came to the LEA. Data showed students experiencing homelessness and those in foster care had lower academic and attendance outcomes than peers, Lund recalled, “and our students often spoke about how they felt isolated from their peers because of the stressors and trauma they experienced. I created a small group to better serve our students and help them connect to their peers who also experienced similar stressors, which in turn helped them connect to staff and our school.”

The program is paid for through a blend of funding sources, as explored in the district’s toolkit, “Best Practices for Improving Identification, Collaboration, and Connection Within Small and Rural LEAs.” Lund added that “the biggest part of this program is the peer support element, and that costs nothing.”

Safe Harbor will keep adapting and improving, especially in identifying students, she said.

“Rural homelessness looks different from urban homelessness because 90 percent of our students who qualify are doubled up, which means their housing insecurity can often go unnoticed — and families are hesitant to indicate that they do not have stable housing. Many rural schools do not do a great job identifying doubled-up students, and I believe that we can still improve identification at our own district,” Lund said.

Overall, Lund said participation helps students “envision a positive future for themselves.” Even after exiting the K-12 system, the district continues its relationship with recent graduates by texting them to see if they need support and ensuring that they are connected to county-level services.

Nearby, Sacramento City USD is committed to filling gaps as needed for its students and families. The district held its first hygiene drive in December, noting the importance of making hygiene products available to homeless youth. Homeless Education Services Program Coordinator Ashley Clark praised the communications team for getting the word out about the event — which continues to have an impact as various community and faith-based groups are now organizing drives.

“Hygiene items are so critical for homeless families,” Clark said. “Students being able to show up to school and be clean and have their hair brushed and have their clothes clean — it takes away the stigma that a lot of homeless students face, and it helps our students have dignity and helps our parents have pride.”

“Our goal is simple yet profound: to ensure that every student feels a sense of normalcy and belonging, experiencing school just like any other student.”
— Diana Craighead Board President, Long Beach USD
“Our goal is simple yet profound: to ensure that every student feels a sense of normalcy and belonging, experiencing school just like any other student.”

– Diana Craighead Board President, Long Beach USD
Addressing stigma

Long Beach USD elementary and middle schools require students to wear uniforms, which the district will provide for those experiencing homelessness as well as assistance with laundry to remove a potential barrier to attendance, said Director of Student Support Services Claudia Sosa-Valderrama.

The LEA offers additional services through its Bethune Homeless Education program.

It identifies students eligible for the program through an enrollment packet that includes a housing questionnaire and subsequent annual enrollment verification process. If responses prompt staff to believe a student could be facing housing insecurity, one of the program’s social workers conduct follow-up and intake meetings to discuss services.

“I am incredibly proud of LBUSD’s Bethune program and its unwavering dedication to supporting students and families experiencing homelessness,” said Long Beach USD Board President Diana Craighead. “Our goal is simple yet profound: to ensure that every student feels a sense of normalcy and belonging, experiencing school just like any other student. By providing essential resources and fostering an environment where all students can focus on learning and enjoy the full student experience, we are laying the foundation for their success and empowering them to thrive.”

illustration of hygiene supplies including bottles, stuffed animals and a brush in a cardboard box
The program was featured in the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools’ recent brief “No Shame or Stigmas” that highlights promising practices, challenges and recommendations for prioritizing students experiencing homelessness in education.

“We ensure that the students and the family’s confidentiality is maintained at all times. So only the people that need to know have the information about the students’ housing situation and their eligibility,” Sosa-Valderrama said of how things are handled locally.

They are also mindful of the language they use to avoid perpetuating stigma, and pair services such as wellness centers with food pantries or clothing closets. “We don’t want them to feel like it’s embarrassing to come and receive services,” Sosa-Valderrama added. “We don’t want to put that stigma and say, these resources are for students that are homeless only. The social worker might have that information and they might point them to [services], but it is integrated into the whole school.”

Wheatland Union HSD’s Lund said students chose the name Safe Harbor as it gives anonymity and implies safety and strength. “This greatly helps reduce stigma, as it gives staff and students a way to talk about their experience without having to use stigmatizing language … I do a lot of outreach and training with our staff and board about Safe Harbor, and making this a priority for our district further helps reduce stigma,” Lund said.

Additionally, they use the term “experiencing homelessness” as it is a circumstance that happens, not one that defines a person. “We avoid the term ‘unhoused’ because our students have told us this doesn’t make sense for their situation — many of our students who are doubled up have a house to stay in, it’s just not their house,” Lund explained. “I know the term unhoused is more popular in urban areas and perhaps down the road our students will tell us they prefer to be considered unhoused — but for now, we’ll use whatever terminology they feel comfortable with.”

Even with efforts like these taking place in LEAs, Sosa-Valderrama said the number of students experiencing homelessness is still underreported because of stigma. Luckily, the state’s Homeless Education Technical Assistance Centers (HE TACs), led by the Contra Costa, Los Angeles and San Diego COEs, have resources like informational posters available to use on campuses. “They also have information and best practices that they’ve collected from other school districts on ways to identify students that need support,” Sosa-Valderrama said.

The HE TACs have been funded since 2021–22 with federal American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth dollars, according to the California Department of Education, and money remained through 2023–24. Each of the lead COEs have specific regions/districts they work with.

San Diego COE developed a website to house the resources created, including state and federal statutes and guidance, materials on dozens of topics like awareness, chronic absence, engagement, rural and special education and more. Training opportunities and events and a portal to ask questions are also available.

Future funding for the HE TACs is contingent on the state budget. Susanne Terry, San Diego COE coordinator for homeless education, said there is a desire — and need — to keep the work going.

Best practices
Research on evidence-based strategies to support students experiencing homelessness and practices to avoid is becoming more readily available. In November, EdResearch for Action — a partnership between Annenberg Institute at Brown University and Results for America — published the report Educational Practices to Identify and Support Students Experiencing Homelessness that outlines dos and don’ts.

According to the report, practices that LEAs may consider implementing are as follows:

  • Provide training for school staff on students’ legal and educational rights as well as signs of homelessness. This is key to identifying and supporting students experiencing homelessness and is required by The McKinney-Vento Act.
  • Offer ongoing staff training on trauma-informed practices and anti-racist pedagogy to foster a supportive environment, which will in turn increase the likelihood that students and families will self-identify.
  • Have carefully designed, intentional collaborations and data sharing between schools and community providers to improve identification and pathways to resources for families.
  • Tailor practices to meet the needs of individual students and improve outcomes, allow time for regular communication between students and student-identified trusted adults.
  • Consider the use of technology-based service delivery as it can benefit students, schools and community organizations if districts ensure equitable access is available.

Ineffective strategies covered in the report include (1) the use of deficit-oriented and stigmatizing practices that may have adverse short- and long-term consequences for students and families and (2) reliance on in-person interactions with parents and/or assuming parents will initiate contact to access services (especially since some young people experiencing homelessness are unaccompanied minors).

The successful strategies can be used to complement what is already required of schools by the state and federal governments.

Under McKinney-Vento, all LEAs must implement provisions of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program. A few of those provisions include providing stability, access and support for academic success; having a local homeless liaison to oversee identification, enrollment and success of these students; and working with Title I, Part A, and other federal programs, community agencies and service providers. LEAs must immediately identify and enroll homeless children and youth regardless of documentation like proof of residency, guardianship or health or school records and students’ educational rights must be posted (CDE has posters available online in multiple languages).

LEAs are also required to report the number of students enrolled throughout the academic year via CALPADS, the state’s student data system.

“The more everybody knows about homeless education and what’s supposed to be done, the more kids are getting served the way they should be,” San Diego COE’s Terry said.

Heather Kemp is a staff writer for California Schools.