California’s pilot program hopes to prevent homeless students

"They try to find safe places."
Posted: 2:32 PM, Apr 13, 2022
Updated: 2022-04-13 22:04:11-04
Depressed Student Over Desks

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Graduation day is meant to be a time of celebration, but for many high school seniors facing homelessness, it often signals the end of free meals and a place to be during the day.

There is a proposal trying to give an immediate solution to this problem.

This proposal would essentially give California high school seniors who are homeless $1,000 every month from April through August, which is that period at the end of their senior year and into college or a job.

According to the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, about 3,600 local students were experiencing homelessness last year. Of those, 211 were seniors, roughly 6% of the total homeless student enrollment.

“It seems like no matter what we do and how many billions we put into dealing with homelessness particularly at the adult level, we continue to feed the system with young people coming in,” said Dave Cortese.

Senator Dave Cortese who proposed this pilot program said he hopes this prevents homeless youth from becoming permanently homeless.

By definition, those considered homeless students, are put into the official database called the McKinney-Vento list, and do not have a regular place to sleep, meaning they may live in motels, with a relative, in cars, or in shelters.

“We have heard stories of youth who have slept in public restrooms at parks, where they have felt safe behind locked doors. They try to find safe places to sleep at night. They may not look during the day like your typical person who we would consider homeless,” said Curt Williams.

Curt Williams, the Director of Foster Youth Services for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, said across the state there were more than 180,000 students in K-12 that were at some point homeless in the last school year.

In Kern County the average has been about 5,000 homeless students in one school year, with about 250 seniors.

Williams does point out that not all of these students stay homeless. For some, this is a temporary situation but are still counted as part of the data.

“It is pretty hard to focus on your education when you are worried about where you are going to sleep and eat during the day.”

The proposed pilot program would give 15,000 homeless high school seniors across the state $1,000 through a debit account that they can then use towards whatever they need for five months.

Although the application will come out along with FAFSA, it is not limited to those students pursuing a higher education. The student would also have to be on the McKinney-Vento list to qualify.

“This is about first and foremost getting them out of this extremely low-income level of poverty and less about what they are going to do with their lives because that should be an individual choice,” said Senator Cortese.

The pilot program would cost $85 million and has already passed the Senate Education Committee and will now go to the Senate Human Services Committee.
Graduation day is meant to be a time of celebration, but for many high school seniors facing homelessness, it often signals the end of free meals and a place to be during the day.

Identifying these types of students

In the meantime, this year Kern County schools implemented a new program that trains teachers in identifying these students.

Homeless youth make up almost 4% of the total student population in public schools. There has been an almost 10% drop from last year.

Kern County officials explain a dip could be due to COVID, and they hope this effort will keep students in school.

“Now schools are required to train all staff that have contact with students on identifying homeless students. We have actually created a program for that which schools can use,” said Williams.

“We found over 50% of students who are accepted to colleges and universities as they graduate senior year in this homeless population, never make it. [They] never make it in the fall to enrollment, not because they are not qualified, but because of the ravages of life,” said Senator Cortese.

The money does not have any limits on how it can be spent and is for all students even those who are not looking to enter the university system after. However, some believe this may just be half of an answer.

“I think for a large number of these students, a four-year college may not be in their future. I think this may be a temporary patch but I don’t think this is a long-term solution for these particular students,” said Williams.

23ABC In-Depth

Speaking of homeless youth here in our county, we wanted to take a deeper look at the number of homeless students in our schools across the state over the years, and have that breakdown for you.

According to the California Department of Education, in 2016 to 2017, a little over 202,000 homeless students were enrolled in schools.

In the next year, that number grew slightly to 204,000 students. It peaked in the 2018 to 2019 school year with nearly 208,000 homeless students.

It dropped the next year to about 195,000 and the last reported numbers were in the 2020 to 2021 school year with about 183,000 students.

The number of homeless students did drop quite a bit but according to Curt Williams, the Director of Foster Youth Services for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools those numbers could be skewed, because of the pandemic.

"I think so obviously during COVID, identifying homeless students was a challenge for all schools, statewide, nationally, like all the numbers dipped. I think we actually did better in Kern County, we're typically a little over 5,000. We're a little over 4,700 during a low point in COVID in identification and I think that had a lot to do with the lack of personal contact with our students. You find out a lot more when you have that one-on-one contact through zoom meetings or something like that."

The Department of Education said these numbers come from the number of students enrolled on the first Wednesday in October.