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Schools struggle to combat increasing homelessness as federal funding ends

Katie VanArnam | February 13, 2024

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Students walk to their classrooms at a public middle school in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

Los Angeles Unified schools are facing an increasing number of homeless students at the same time the district is losing more than $5 billion in federal COVID-19 funding. 

Of the $5 billion, $7.4 million is allocated for programs aimed at homeless students. According to the California Department of Education and U.S Department of Education, the funds must be spent by September, 2024, and are unlikely to be allocated again.  

In the 2022-23 school, LAUSD reported 9,140 homeless students, a nine percent increase from the previous academic year. 

This is the first increase in the homeless student population since 2019 when the district saw numbers increase from 18,000 to 19,000; and then rapidly decrease to 7,910 in 2021 with the implementation of pandemic programs designed to stem evictions.

“Moratoriums started ending for eviction protections…now they’re completely gone away,” said LA County state homeless education project director Jennifer Kottke. 

“Landlords could raise their rents because of inflation,” Kottke said, “then you’ve seen all these families not being able to afford to be able to stay…and they weren’t paying sometimes months prior because of COVID, so there was no way they could reconcile their bill. And so they were evicted.”

Still, superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district is in ‘relatively good financial standing’ and has implemented a hiring freeze along with the possibility of closing or consolidating schools as enrollment continues to decline. 

The district also receives $250,000 in state funding for programs for homeless students.  

Funding for homeless students includes programs such as Section 8, a partnership with the Housing Authority of Los Angeles which provides housing rental vouchers for LAUSD students and their families. An HACLA spokesperson said the program was created in 2019 to provide vouchers for 50 families in the district, living in the San Fernando Valley; and was expanded to 100 families. 

During the pandemic, vouchers were issued to many more families helping to keep them in their homes. But the program has since been cut, Kotke said.  

In an effort to address chronic absenteeism, the school district has also created a new IAttend program, keeping a daily tracker of attendance, and knocking on more than 8,000 student’s doors to try to get them to return to classes consistently. Many students faced hardships during the pandemic that prevented them from returning to school.

LAUSD also released plans to combat chronic absenteeism in 2022, including an increase in mental health counseling, working with parents, and shifting towards restorative practices. However, for homeless students, the chronic absenteeism rate remained above 60 percent in the 2021-2022 school year.

The tension between the attempted success of LAUSD homeless programs and available funds has driven the need for new solutions. Craig Mitchell, Judge of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County from 2005-2019, founded the Skid Row Running Club in 2011, a group of runners for the formerly incarcerated, recovering addicts, and LAUSD homeless students. 

“There’s so much peer counseling going on,” said Mitchell. “High school students are in a unique position to benefit from it…To start out having a community right from a young age and then being able to realize that you can still follow your dreams and be the person that you want to be as you get older.”  

Bryan Langston, a formerly homeless LAUSD student who lived in his car, said the Skid Row Running Club was his support and lifeline after district programs were not structured enough or helpful.  

“It practically changed my whole life and perspective,” said Langston, who said Mitchell and others in the club helped him get into community college.   

Katie VanArnam is studying journalism at the University of Southern California. Before moving to Los Angeles, Katie lived in New Jersey where she was a student and freelancer.

This article is part of a collaboration between LA School Report’s parent company, The 74, and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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