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There are 63,000 homeless children in school in LA County

Tandra Dixon's children play during winter break in their South Los Angeles home on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 21, 2016. In November, Dixon and her five children moved into this two-bedroom apartment.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Tandra Dixon's children play during winter break in their South Los Angeles home on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 21, 2016. In November, Dixon and her five children moved into this two-bedroom apartment.

A tally across L.A. County's public and charter schools counted nearly 63,000 homeless students last school year, 2015-2016. That’s about a 17 percent jump from the prior school year's count of 54,000 kids.

"Even though we're supposed to be in a better place, financially as a country, that hasn't really rolled down to our families," said Melissa Schoonmaker, homeless liaison with the L.A. County Office of Education, which collects the numbers. 

A fraction of the rise, she said, could be attributed to problematic data from the prior year that led to an undercount. But more prominently, she said, it's the high cost of living in Los Angeles coupled with incomes that haven't kept up

"If you're making minimum wage, you have to work three full-time jobs to afford 'affordable housing,'" she said.

As a result, families double and triple up, couch-surfing, staying in garages, and living in vehicles, shelters, and sometimes out on the street. That's left school districts with the challenge of providing an adequate education to thousands of kids who are constantly moving around, have stressed out parents, and may not have a way of getting to school from wherever they're staying.

One challenge: those couch-surfing or living in motels don't meet the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's definition of homeless, because they technically have a roof over their heads. Because of that, they're not eligible for resources funded by that department. 

"Ay, it's difficult," Schoonmaker said. 

"Our students need extra supports to succeed," said Nancy Gutierrez, the homeless coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District. LAUSD prioritizes counseling and tutoring services for homeless children in the district, as well as after-school care and summer programs. The district also hosts fundraisers to buy backpacks, hygiene supplies and uniforms for kids. 

But all told, Gutierrez said, her office is limited by its budget, which is around $3 million annually. That money largely goes to funding the 17 counselors who travel to approximately 1,250 schools around the district, offering services to homeless students. 

"For a district of just under 1.6 million students with several thousand homeless students identified, it’s just a drop in the bucket," Gutierrez said. 

Eric Alvarez, with Pasadena Unified School District, said transportation is one of the major issues for homeless students in that district.

They're able to provide some bus passes "but it's not always enough," he said.

Despite those challenges, school districts have made major advancements in how they work with homeless kids in recent years, said Judy Seal, executive director of Long Beach Education Foundation, an organization that raises money for school expenses not adequately funded through public money, like services for homeless kids.

"Kids perform at a high level if they're given what they need," she said. 

In the early 1990s, when Long Beach Unified School District started noticing homeless students and trying to specifically address their needs, there were only a few dozen. 

"And we thought that was a lot," Seal said. The continued rise, she said, is "disheartening."

While raw numbers of homeless students have been available for decades, less is known about their performance in school. Nationally, high school graduation rates are at below 20 percent for homeless students, Schoonmaker said, but local numbers aren't tracked. Next year, school districts will be required by the federal government to report school retention rates for homeless students.