As COTS’ CEO, each month I take a moment to consider what I want our community to know about our organization and our progress in serving Sonoma County’s homeless. I look forward to sharing these thoughts with you in this Virtual Cup of Coffee – my monthly communique about the business and mission moments of COTS (Committee On The Shelterless).

My best,

The Excitement of Back to School…Maybe

It’s Fall and that means lots of news about students going back to school, excited to see their friends and teachers, parents relieved of no more online learning, and stadiums filled with football fans. And because we live in unprecedented times, there are also the many challenges with COVID and keeping students, teachers, and everyone else safe.  But what I’ve not seen in the news is the hidden reality of students who are homeless. How extensive is student homelessness, what’s the impact of homelessness on students and their ability to learn, and what can we do about it?

There’s lots of data from the National Center for Homeless Education, The Learning Policy Institute, and the National #Real College Survey Report. So let me share some numbers. And unfortunately, these numbers are pre-pandemic. Likely, things have worsened  for homeless students.

  • In California, there were 271,520 homeless youth enrolled in public schools in grades Pre-K through 12 in 2018-19. Of that, 30% were students with Limited English Proficiency; 83% were doubled up living with another family; 7% were living in shelters; 5% were living in hotels; and 4% were unsheltered living in cars, parks, campgrounds, or abandoned buildings. 70% of the homeless students were Latino and 9% were Black.
  • Nationally, there were 1,384,301 homeless youth enrolled in public schools in grades Pre-K through 12 in 2018-19. Of that, 16% were students with Limited English Proficiency; 77% were doubled up living with another family; 12% were living in shelters; 7% were living in hotels; and 4% were unsheltered living in cars, parks, campgrounds, or abandoned buildings.
  • Among 86,000 college students surveyed at 123 two and four year colleges in 2018, 17% experienced homelessness in the previous year; 45% were food insecure in the prior 30 days; and 56% were housing insecure in the previous year.
  • In Canada, 63% of youth experiencing homelessness did not complete high school. We know that youth who do not graduate high school are 4.5 times more likely to face homelessness than their peers who graduated.
  • The relationship between education and homelessness is “bi-directional – low education attainment increases the likelihood of homelessness and homelessness reduces the likelihood of school completion.” It’s a no-win situation.

So what’s the impact on students when they are homeless? Having a roof over your head, a safe place to sleep, and healthy food in your stomach is absolutely essential to just about everything. Chronic absence from school was 25% for homeless students compared to 12% for non-homeless students. Absences were higher for students of color. Homeless students are more likely to change schools multiple times throughout the year and also be suspended more. Homeless students are also more likely to enroll in high-poverty schools or where the percent of students eligible for free or reduced meals was greater than 80%.

Homeless students are also less likely to meet state achievement standards in Math, Reading, and Science. Many of these students have learning disabilities; experience stress, trauma, and depression; and suffer from poor physical health. The pressures of school and learning are hard enough for normal students. Now imagine trying to focus and learn under all of the stressors of being homeless. Moreover, students often need a guardians signature to participate in school activities. But what if you are unaccompanied and living alone in a car or on someone’s couch?

The contributing factors driving student homelessness are many. There is the ever increasing cost of housing; the lack of affordable housing; increased usage of opioids and methamphetamines; persistent poverty; underemployment and unemployment; more gentrification in neighborhoods; and the increasing natural disasters due to climate change – hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and wildfires in the West.

And the answer to student homelessness? I don’t know. The government is providing funding for this problem. Schools are aware and doing everything they can under the circumstances. At COTS, we are examining our Kids First and Family Shelter (KFFS) programs and services. We know we have to change the way we operate. We cannot foster generational poverty and homelessness.

One thing we do know, and that is every human being has the capacity to develop resiliency and persevere in the face of adversity. They just need someone who believes in them, guides them, and has unconditional love for them…like a grandparent, aunt or uncle, a teacher, or a coach. We hear about success stories all the time. Our job at COTS is to support policies, practices, and environments that help foster this resilience and provide unwavering support and unconditional love. With that and a bunch of luck, everything is possible.

References used:

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez