LOS ANGELES - On a Friday evening at the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, Arlene Olivares and her four children are in a brightly colored family entertainment room in the women and children’s wing. It’s a small haven from the drab, sterile concrete hallways of the rest of the building, and Arlene’s oldest daughter, Ailene Cuenca, 11, is talking about how she has a tough time doing homework at the shelter, where she and her family share a room with three other families.
“There are a lot of kids in my room, and it’s too noisy,” she says.Her situation now is easier than two-and-a-half years ago, however, when she and her family
were homeless for a year and moved from motel to motel every four months, forcing her to switch schools each time.
"I fell behind [in school]… When I go to one school I learn something, and I go to another school I learn the same thing, and when I go to another it’s harder.”
Olivares agrees, noting that even though it’s loud and difficult for her kids to get work done at the shelter, it’s still better than moving around. “It’s hard on them, it’s hard,” she says. “They get settled in one school with the schoolwork and all of their friends, and then they
have to start all over with another one.”
The statistics agree. Nationwide, with each change of school a child is set back
academically from four to six months. Further, 41% of homeless children will attend two different schools in a normal year, and 28% will attend three or more different schools.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, Ailene is just one of 13,521 homeless students who have been identified. According to the people who compiled the data, the homeless school population is in all likelihood an undercount because of the difficulties of tracking and identifying the students and their families.
In charge of making sure all of these students’ needs are met is Melissa Schoonmaker, who as the LAUSD pupil services and attendance coordinator of the Homeless Education Program has a paltry five counselors at her disposal, with one of those permanently in the office. That, however, is an improvement – up until last May she only had one counselor.
“No, we’re not adequately staffed,” she says with a laugh. “These families need someone who can help them navigate through the system, and four counselors in the field with 13,000 students is not enough. It’s better than it was, but it’s still a far cry from what we need.”
Not enough help for state’s 170,000 homeless kids
Financially, the picture isn’t much better. The Homeless Education Program received $796,000 in Title I funding from the district for this academic year, a stream of federal funding reserved for school districts with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Unfortunately, all of the money she receives goes towards paying her staff, which, aside from the five counselors, includes another part-time counselor and a few office aides.
They also received $128,000 in federal funding from the state government through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is supposed to help reduce the barriers that homeless students confront in “enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school.” This money is earmarked for a sprawling diversity of purposes, including the provision of tutoring; broad evaluations of where efforts need to be directed; professional development; medical, dental, mental and other health services; transportation not otherwise provided for through federal, state, or local funding; before-and after-school programs; costs resulting from tracking, obtaining, and transferring necessary records; education programs for both parents and schools; school supplies, and a host of others.
Throughout the state, most of the money goes towards transportation costs, outreach services and making the necessary linkages between homeless parents and schools, though it can differ drastically from district to district. At $128,000 for the entire LAUSD, unfortunately, funding works out to less than $10 a child, making it nearly impossible for all of these students to be adequately provided for.
“It is woefully under-funded,” said Leanne Wheeler, who as a consultant at the California Department of School and District Accountability Division is in charge of distributing McKinney-Vento funds throughout the state, and overseeing their use. She remains optimistic, despite it all. “You have to have a positive outlook and use that shoestring budget to make miracles… Melissa and her staff are doing a tremendous job of implementing the law under the circumstances that they face.”
Money to be distributed throughout the state shrunk this year by more than $250,000, from just over $8.6 million to about $8.3 million. This happened despite an increase of over 27,000 more children being identified as homeless in California, swelling the total to about 170,000 children. The LAUSD program, as a result, saw its funding decline 11 percent, to $128,000 from $145,000.
Half the problem: identifying homeless kids
One of the most important uses for the little money that LAUSD officials do receive goes towards identifying and helping homeless parents and their children navigate through the often complex school bureaucracy. Identifying them can be difficult, as the homeless definition used for students under the McKinney-Vento Act is broader than the homeless description used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under McKinney, a student is homeless if his or her family is living in hotels or motels, transitional housing or shelters, abandoned buildings, parked cars or other facilities not designated as a regular living facility, trailers or campsites due to lack of adequate living accommodations, families that are sharing housing with other families due to financial reasons, and runaway youths living on the streets or couch-surfing at their friends’.
“The real problem is identifying them,” said LAUSD Superintendent David L. Brewer. “We’ve done a lot of development with teachers and administrators to help identify them, because a lot of them don’t self-identify. Once we identify them, then we’re providing them with services that they need.”
Unfortunately, many families are unaware of the right of equal access that homeless schoolchildren are guaranteed by McKinney-Vento, and many schools are also ignorant of what obligations they have to fulfill. While some schools have large
populations of homeless schoolchildren, many do not and can make it difficult for parents trying to enroll their children, mainly because they lack a permanent address and the money to help purchase the necessary school materials that the district must provide under McKinney-Vento.
Olivares ran into this problem when they were bounced around from motel to motel a couple of years ago.“The schools were not helpful… I told them we were homeless and they didn’t help,” she said, adding that things are much easier now, as her children attend schools that have substantial homeless populations. “They just gave me a hard time in even getting [my children] into schools, because I didn’t have a permanent address. I told them our situation, and they just made things hard.”
Advocates for the homeless
There is a sliver of hope on the horizon, though, for homeless parents who have run into these problems with schools. Policy changes currently awaiting approval by the district will mandate that every school must designate someone currently working there to act as a homeless liaison and to be in charge of contacting the district’s homeless education program if they have a homeless student. Advocates of the policy change, known internally at LAUSD as Bulletin 1570, are optimistic that it will get approved.
Homeless schoolchildren advocates say that a lack of awareness on a broader level is hampering many of the efforts to improve the educational situation. While more than 1.35 million children experience homelessness nationwide each year, and 39 percent of the overall homeless population is comprised of children, the prevailing image of homelessness is still largely single men.
“One of the biggest things is to build awareness of the problem,” said Wheeler. “I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t realize that we have 170,000 homeless children throughout the state, and building awareness and getting people to really hone in on that is important.”