51,000 homeless students are in LA public schools. How are they getting help?


The LA County Office of Education’s definition of homelessness includes youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. They say 51,287 homeless youth are in the county. Photo by Shutterstock.

This week, volunteers will spread out across LA County for the Point in Time Count, an annual tally coordinated by the LA County Homeless Services Agency (LAHSA). The count helps the federal government determine how much funding should go into addressing homelessness.

LAHSA chose to skip it last year due to the pandemic. In 2020, the agency counted 66,436 unsheltered people — 4,673 of them were under the age of 24.

But if you ask the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) how many homeless youth are in the county, they’ll give you a very different number: 51,287.

Why are there two numbers?

LAHSA uses the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition, which defines a homeless youth as someone who’s living on the streets, in a car, a shelter, or a motel. That’s what gets them to 4,673.

LACOE uses a broader definition which includes youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, which is why their number catapults to 51,287.

Their definition includes a student whose family is temporarily couch surfing at a friend’s place, sharing an apartment with several other families because they can only afford part of the rent (often referred to as doubled or tripled up), or living in substandard housing like a garage.

Why are schools counting homeless youth?

Unstable housing affects a student’s ability to learn and to do well in school, and schools don’t want bad housing to turn into learning loss.

Public school systems around the country started counting these kids after the McKinney-Vento Act was signed into law back in 1987. Named after two US Congressmen who were working on poverty issues, it acknowledges that children who are homeless or in unstable housing need extra help and school is often the best place to help them.

What can schools do to help?

Schools can’t provide housing for students, but they can help in other ways.

“Districts purchase bike helmets to help kids who are riding to school,” says Jennifer Kottke, a homeless education coordinator at the LA County Office of Education. “Lots of school supplies, tons of hygiene products, laundry detergent, you name it. Anything we can do to ensure that students are in school.”

McKinney-Vento students also get free breakfast and lunch, special transportation to school if their family had to move farther away, homework help, and sometimes more time on tests. 

Education can be a pathway out of poverty, so teachers and homeless coordinators are trying to do whatever possible to keep students coming to school everyday and hopefully break the cycle of poverty. 

“I think McKinney-Vento is more preventative,” says Denise Miranda, LAUSD’s director of student support programs. “If we were to address those students and families now, we would hope to prevent them from continuing having generational issues with housing.”

How did COVID-19 impact homeless students?

The pandemic has been hard for all students, but especially those who depend on their schools for food, internet, supervision, and support.

Although school districts scrambled to set up food drives, distribute laptops, and expand home internet access, Kottke says a lot of McKinney-Vento students stopped attending virtual classes.

“We have lost a lot of students this past year because we cannot locate them,” she says. “Largely, we think the contribution to that is [district] closures.”

Even school enrollment went online, which was extremely difficult for families to navigate, she says. “On top of that, finding people to help them enroll was a nightmare.”

Kottke thinks the decline in enrollment means fewer families filled out housing surveys (like this one from LAUSD), which means 51,287 is likely a severe undercount of homeless youth in LA County.

Even if students did enroll, Miranda says parents were more wary this year of telling the truth on the housing survey. Some feared that child welfare would remove their child if they disclosed that they lived in substandard housing. Miranda says that is not the case.

What’s being done?

LAHSA is aware that the Point in Time Count leaves out hundreds of thousands of kids and their families who are living in unstable housing.

The agency has been working more closely with public schools ever since Measure H passed in LA in 2017, which secured money that helped create a coordinated system between LACOE and LAHSA.

“I am huge about creating solutions, and this has been a really viable solution,” says Kottke.