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LAUSD board approves study of housing homeless students and their families on district properties

Taylor Swaak | November 13, 2018

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Erika López and her two younger children are one LA Unified family that has experienced homelessness. She is a parent leader and volunteer at Glassell Park Elementary School and has been president of the school’s English Learner Advisory Committee for three years.

*Updated Nov. 28

LA Unified’s school board voted Tuesday to study using district property to house homeless students and their families, despite split public opinion.

In a 4-1 vote with one abstention, school board members approved a resolution giving Superintendent Austin Beutner six months to research the feasibility of using district sites to:

  • Allow overnight parking for homeless students and families, in collaboration with the Safe Parking L.A. program,
  • Provide overnight shelter and meals, “at minimum” during winter and summer recesses, and
  • Build or convert buildings to create temporary or permanent housing.

Kelly Gonez, who authored the resolution, told LA School Report that to her knowledge, this would be a first for the district.

“We really need to look for new and improved ways to support our students and families,” Gonez said by phone Monday. “If we can’t provide for the most vulnerable of our children, then we have failed as a society.”

Gonez and co-sponsors Mónica García and Nick Melvoin approved the resolution, along with Scott Schmerelson. Richard Vladovic opposed it, though he did not provide comment. George McKenna abstained, saying the resolution left too many questions unanswered, especially relating to cost estimates.

“I’m not against the concept, but I don’t know what I’m voting for,” he said. “How complete [is this report] six months from now?”

• Read more: 

Telfair Elementary: The heart of LAUSD’s homeless crisis could become ground zero for change

LA parent voice: Homelessness won’t stop me from being involved in my kids’ school

LA Unified has not identified any specific locations for homeless housing, but possibilities could include district properties such as school gyms, offices and parking lots. The resolution proposes using funds from Proposition HHH, a bond measure voters approved in 2016 that granted the county $1.2 billion to aid the homeless, including building affordable housing.

Beutner told the board Tuesday that he agrees “this is an important issue,” though he added that he’d like to hone his focus — at least to start — on Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Nearly 24 percent of the school’s 700 students are considered homeless.

“If we start at Telfair, and we can prove to everybody here that we can solve [homelessness] at Telfair, then I think we can solve it in more communities,” Beutner said.

The resolution was met with mixed reactions from residents. At least seven speakers expressed support or reservations before the packed boardroom.

Michael Murray, a Carlton Terrace resident who lives two doors down from the now-vacant Oso Avenue Elementary School site in Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, said he worries about the “inevitable effects that such a program would have on the community, such as crime [and] drug use.” Oso has not been identified as a housing site, but Murray and at least one other resident who spoke assumed it will be flagged as an option.

Principal Alfredo Montes of Langdon Avenue Elementary School, on the other hand, said he “wholeheartedly” supports the resolution’s goal to expand services for homeless students. About 20 percent of his 129 students qualify as homeless — many of them living “doubled up, or even tripled up, with other families,” he said.

“I can only imagine how difficult it is for these kids to study and do their homework in a quiet place,” he said. “And these families move a lot when their leases are up, when the rent goes up. …We lose a lot of kids that way.”

There are between 16,200 and 21,000 homeless students in LA Unified, depending on who’s counting. Last year, the number of homeless students in LA Unified spiked 50 percent from the previous year as the district doubled its staff who work with the homeless from 14 to 29 people.

Homelessness has far-reaching consequences on academic achievement: Research shows these students are eight times more likely than their peers to repeat a grade and twice as likely to score lower on standardized tests. About 23 percent of homeless youth in LA Unified also miss 10 percent or more of the school year — nearly twice the district average, according to the California Department of Education.

LA Unified already has a Homeless Education Program that helps identify homeless youth and provides assistance such as counseling, backpacks, school supplies and transportation. And there’s “some history” of allocating district funds for affordable housing, Gonez said. But utilizing district property would be “a new precedent.”

“We’ve never really taken that next step to address the root cause” of the hardships homeless students experience, Gonez said. “Ultimately, the reason why students and their families are struggling is because they’re homeless.”

Housing initiatives for homeless students in San Francisco and Dallas Unified School District in Texas are serving as inspiration, she said.

As the district studies new housing opportunities, it’s expecting the city and county to play a sizable role, Beutner told LA School Report. In a Nov. 28 letter letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Beuter and Gonez asked them “to work with us.”

“These students and their families need housing, counseling, healthcare, job and career training and much more,” the letter states. “With your commitment and support, we can help students in these schools and their families.”

Apart from housing, the resolution also calls for reviewing the efficacy of the 12-year-old Homeless Education Program, and asks the district to examine the possibility of adding counselors — Gonez said there are fewer than 100 in that program now. It seeks to bolster professional development opportunities for schools’ “homeless liaisons” as well. This liaison is oftentimes a staff member, such as a teacher, who is volunteering to be a resource for his or her school’s homeless students.

Finding new housing options for homeless students and families is crucial, Gonez said, when considering that affordable housing “is being built slowly.”

Los Angeles is in the midst of building new housing for the homeless — there are an estimated 53,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County — with Proposition HHH funds. New approaches include small backyard homes and apartments made from shipping containers. But demand for affordable housing in LA’s red-hot market still well exceeds supply: The Los Angeles Times reported that 32,000 units geared toward low-income families would need to be built by 2021 to accommodate the affordable housing shortage. And Proposition HHH’s initial goal of 10,000 units over 10 years is already appearing untenable.

Affordable housing can also spark public opposition. In neighborhoods such as Venice, residents worry adding temporary shelters will attract more homeless people to the area. In San Jose Unified School District, which is entertaining the idea of using nine district-owned properties to build new affordable units for teachers and other school employees, some residents fear development would lower home values, ruin neighborhood aesthetic and worsen traffic.

A separate resolution, co-sponsored by García and Melvoin, was introduced Tuesday that — like San Jose — would consider developing “affordable workforce housing” for eligible district employees, such as teacher assistants and cafeteria workers. That resolution is scheduled to be voted on at the board’s Dec. 11 meeting.

Gonez emphasized that the homeless students and families that her resolution aims to serve are “already people living in our community.”

“This is our opportunity to provide the supports that they need so that those children, especially, can attend school and succeed in school,” she said. “Which, ultimately, will benefit our community as a whole.”

*This article has been updated to add a Nov. 28 letter from Beutner and Gonez to city and county officials.

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