How LA elementary schools try to help homeless students

Written by
In 2016-17, just over 200,000 students, or 3 percent of all students, reported living conditions counted as homeless: motel, shelter, trailer park, car, park, emergency housing or — due to economic hardship — with friends or family.
The map’s colors reflect the percentage of homeless reported by each school from 0 (green) to average (yellow) to two or more times average (red). Map courtesy of original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Among the 53,000 homeless people in L.A. are almost 5,000 children. So it’s no surprise that many schools have become de facto social service agencies, educating kids but also helping them with basic necessities.

At Nuffer Elementary School in Norwalk, 154 of the school’s 328 students told school officials this year they live in homeless shelters, cars, RV’s, motels, or temporarily with friends and family. That’s almost half the student body.

“We’re talking about families that have lost their housing,” said Rosa Barragan, who works for the greater Norwalk-La Mirada School District, organizing services and programs for homeless families.

The district works with more than 30 agencies to offer legal counsel, transportation, food and other necessities for students. Money comes either from the federal government, or a handful of dedicated charities.

But even with these programs, some students still struggle. John Fields has taught third grade at Nuffer for close to a decade, and says he’s seen student need increase over the years.

“I’ve bought jackets, I’ve bought underwear. Pants, shoes… because students don’t have them, their parents don’t have them. How can I have some poor little kid who’s sitting in a classroom with clothes that don’t fit? And that they come into school with the same clothing every day– what do you do?”

Fields says money is often tight for most families– including those who have a stable roof over their heads.

“The homeless students are just lucky enough to have additional supports,” he says. “It would be nice if we were able to give those to every single student. Because we have students who are single parent– we have a low socioeconomic backgrounds here, and it’s a struggle for a lot of them.”

John Fields teaches 3rd Grade and says many of his students face poverty. Photo by Aidan Connelly (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Rosa Barragan organizes services and programs for homeless families in the school district. Photo by Aidan Connelly (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For the Nuffer faculty, student hunger is a major concern. While Fields says he can’t always tell whether a student has a home to go back to, it’s clear when they haven’t had enough to eat.

“They’re tired, they’re lethargic. They’d say they’re hungry, their stomach hurts, I didn’t eat this morning, I didn’t have something for breakfast– and it’s just, it’s hard. And occasionally you’re able to send them to the cafeteria, if it’s not too late in the day. It makes it more difficult if they say ‘i’m starving’ and it’s 9 o’clock in the morning, you know?”

For families who need it, Nuffer offers a backpack of groceries, which they hand out at the start of each week. This year, they’re extending the program to last throughout the summer.

Veronica Navarro is tasked with making sure each backpack finds its way to the assigned families. She says providing food is essential to making sure the kids are able to learn.

“When they come into school without eating anything … they can’t think because all they hear is their stomach growling,” says Navarro. “And it’s sad that there’s a lot of people going through this. It’s just sad to see all that– they come in saying ‘last night I went to sleep hungry.’ That’s how we sign up some of these students.”

Back at the school district office, Rosa Barragan says she’s proud of the work her department is doing, and the resources they’re able to provide for students in need. However, she recognizes that there are limitations in how much her department can do. And as long as the cost of living continues to rise, struggling families will continue to need additional support.

“Since 2008, there’s a lot of people who still have not recuperated. So it almost becomes like a cycle,” she says. “You lose your housing and you go to a hotel, motel, then you go to a back shed, then you go to renting a room… and then something happens and now you’re back at the hotel. At the end of the day, the issue is housing, it’s affordable housing– people can’t afford housing.”