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.

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One 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.

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.

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