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News In Numbers: Homeless Student Numbers Rise In San Diego County

Susie Terry Interview

There are 21,466 homeless students in San Diego County K-12 public schools, and the number has been growing over the past seven years.

There are 21,466 homeless students in San Diego County K-12 public schools. That is nearly the population of Coronado.

The number has been growing over the past seven years. But not all children counted as homeless are living on the streets, in cars or in other vulnerable places.

The numbers are important — a lot of money rides on them — but the plain truth is: no one knows the real count.

The San Diego County Office of Education reports the number of homeless students rose from 15,826 during the 2010-11 school year, to 21,466 in the 2015-16 school year.

But across San Diego County, schools districts have their own methods for calculating numbers of homeless students.

“The process isn’t necessarily standard,” said Susie Terry, a project specialist for foster youth at the San Diego County Office of Education. “What they count is the same, but each district does it a little differently.”

Homeless Students By Grade Level

A federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act requires districts to report how many enrolled students live unsheltered, in transitional housing or shelters, in motels or hotels, or most frequently, doubled up with multiple families in a single family home. The Act does not mandate how to collect the data, so the county makes recommendations, Terry said.

Total counts of homeless students can determine how much money a district is eligible to request through the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, a federal grant initiative designed to support vulnerable student populations. Funding for individual districts can range from $75,000 to $750,000 over a three-year period.

The real wildcard in tallying numbers of homeless students is the “doubled up” category, which can fluctuate wildly. Pamela Reichert-Montiel, South Bay Union’s director of student support, said it is a challenge to differentiate between families doubled up based on need versus those doing it by choice.

“Just because you're sharing housing doesn't necessarily mean you're having financial difficulties,” Reichert-Montiel said about students living with extended family. She said this makes her district’s numbers “look hugely inflated.”

South Bay Union reported 1,566 students - or 20 percent - of the student population were homeless in 2016. Of those, 1,442 students were doubled up, with the remaining 19 living in temporary shelters, 17 in hotels or motels, and 5 unsheltered. Eighty three students were unreported.

Of the 38 San Diego school districts that identified specific living situations of homeless students, 28 reported that a majority lived doubled up.

“It’s a really fine line,” Terry said about the double-up discrepancies. “There’s a huge gray area and a lot of times districts have to be skilled in sort of having those discreet conversations with families and trying to find out, ‘if you couldn’t stay here, where else would you go?’”

Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education, said the data is not intended to end homelessness, but rather guarantee a student’s ability to get an education.

“We can't help kids if we don't know their situation,” Watson wrote in an email. “Having information about the number of homeless students is an important first step in removing barriers for these students to enrollment, attendance, and success at school.”

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