District administration and staff seek to create a foundation for students who lack stable housing
William S. Hart Union High School District officials reported more than 900 homeless students in the district with the number of homeless students almost doubling from two years ago as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and compounding challenges brought on by inflation.
According to the district, school site staff at Hart High School and Placerita Junior High reported the greatest number of homeless students, and together, the two school sites account for more than 400 homeless students in the district.
“That is the highest concentration right now, but districtwide, we’ve kept over 900,” said Jan Daisher, director of special programs under the department of Student Services, Safety and Wellness. “For whatever reason, those topped the list this year.”
“It varies every year,” Daisher added. “It’s not always necessarily one neighborhood or one side of town.”
The definition of “homelessness” in the context of education, is different from the public view, she added. In education, “homeless” can mean students and their families living in their car, families that happen to be doubled up for financial reasons, families who’ve lost their homes and move in with another family, or families living in a hotel or motel.
Often, these homeless students face additional barriers that can negatively impact their education.
“Some students may at least have a roof over their head. That’s great for our students’ well-being, but at the same time, it still provides a number of barriers and challenges for them as far as living space and accommodations,” Daisher said.
According to data from Student Services, this year marked the highest number of reported homeless students at 921. Student Services reported 777 homeless students in 2021, 580 homeless students in 2020 and 388 homeless students in 2019.
Daisher said every year in October the district takes an official count, which is then reported to the state or other agencies for many reasons. The number of homeless students can grow as the year goes on, she added.
“If we were to take a guess as to what families would tell us, it’s definitely the pandemic plus inflation,” Daisher said. “Those two things caused a lot of people to lose their jobs.”
The COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted the financial situation of many families across the country. That’s just one aspect as some families may have had or continue to face health issues, and some families may have lost family members, too.
“But inflation, on top of that, is really painful for people who are even just looking for affordable housing,” Daisher said. “We all know the cost of food and the cost of buying anything nowadays has become expensive. When you’re in need to begin with it’s only that much worse.”
Though the number of homeless students has nearly doubled in the district, Daisher said administrators and school site staff do everything they can to create a safe and stable environment for students, especially when those students lack permanent housing.
“Our approach is always through the lens of sensitivity and confidentiality,” Daisher said. “Students don’t go to school wearing a shirt that tells you all about them.”
When parents register their children at the Hart district, they are given a questionnaire to see if the family has stable residency. There are various options, but if the answer in some form is “no” then district staff will connect those families with resources and programs.
According to Daisher, the questionnaire is federally mandated, but the Hart district has a long practice of best practices for its homeless student population.
The McKinney-Vento Act, which provides protections and services for students experiencing homelessness, requires districts to administer the Nighttime Residency Questionnaire in order to find out students’ living situations.
“Every student when they register in August, you cannot register without filling out that form,” Daisher said. “Anything that gives us an idea that they might not have regular, stable housing that is sufficient and adequate for everyone’s needs, then our counselors and our social workers will speak with families and students very quietly and confidentially.”
The district also relies on teacher and staff observation. They look for signs such as if a student sleeps in class, or a change in their behavior or a change in class participation.
According to Daisher, the district has an excellent team of counselors and social workers. They can connect with each of those students and work with their families to find out what their most pressing needs are such as food security, health services, clothing, etc.
Social workers can recommend families to outside community organizations like Family Promise and Bridge to Home. The district also receives federal and state funds to support students, whether it’s providing tutoring services for them or being able to purchase school supplies and hand them out.
Elizabeth Orozco, a social worker at Placerita Junior High School, has worked with the Hart district for several years. She was part of the first group of social workers when the district hired social workers to be on its school sites.
“When the district started bringing on social workers, they saw that we have the skills to be able to assess families and be able to really dig deep and find out what their needs are,” Orozco said.
The team of social workers started with five and has now grown to include a social worker at every school. Orozco expressed gratitude for district administrators, school site administrators and her fellow social workers for the support and focus on providing services to students in need.
“Our team grew from COVID to now because the district saw what we were dealing with as school social workers. They saw the needs that these students were coming in with, whether they were dealing with deaths in their family due to COVID, housing insecurities, mental health issues, etc.,” Orozco said.
She attributes the increase in homeless students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation, too. In addition, she said the numbers are particularly high because they have been able to identify more students.
“There was literally five of us for the whole district,” Orozco said. “We were literally putting out fires going around the valley at all the schools. We couldn’t physically be at every school to be able to help and identify these kids.”
Orozco and Daisher said that by providing homeless students with services and programs — whether it’s finding state or federal funding, creating a safe and welcoming environment, giving them a hot meal or supplying these students with the proper equipment they need to succeed in school — they can help these students graduate and prepare them for their future.
It’s difficult for a school district to reduce homelessness because the work they do is geared toward education, Daisher said. But social workers and district staff have the ability to direct and connect families to community organizations or outside resources that focus on housing.
“Our students know they can count on school for hot, nutritious meals, and that’s a huge benefit,” Daisher said. “Secondly, they’re going to be seen, cared for, and loved by the same trusted adults. Sometimes the most secure place for kids is to come to school every day.”