California must do a better job of helping homeless children
By Lance Izumi and Michele Steeb
As Gov. Gavin Newsom noted in his 2020 State of the State address, California had the second highest increase in state homelessness in 2019. But a newly released report by State Auditor Elaine Howle found that California public schools undercounted homeless students by at least 37%.
Undercounting these students means the state failed to provide these children with the needed counseling, social services connections, and transportation to help them successfully endure the homeless crisis facing their families. The impact of this failure is profound.
By the time a homeless child is 8 years old, one in three has a major mental disorder.
Homeless children have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems, making homeless students twice as likely to repeat a grade compared to non-homeless children.
They perform worse academically than children categorized as low-income. A study in Washington state found that homeless children scored 10 percentage points lower on math and English tests than low-income students who were not homeless.
They are sick at twice the rate of other children, and half of them experience anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior or withdrawal.
Furthermore, a recent study published by “The Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved” found that among homeless adults in Santa Clara County who reported severely traumatic childhoods, 78 percent grew up in a household with a person with drug or alcohol dependence; 65 percent endured psychological abuse as a child; and 37 percent experienced homelessness as children.
California needs to employ policies and approaches that expressly address the needs of children to ensure they don’t become tomorrow’s street homeless. Instead, however, California employs “housing first” as a one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness, whereby men, women and their children are all treated identically.
This policy prescribes housing as the solution to their homelessness, but this mandate strictly prohibits the requirement of sobriety and/or the requirement to engage in life improvement services.
The promise was that this “low-barrier-approach” — rolled out by the federal government first, then adopted by California in 2016 — would end homelessness in a decade. Instead, homelessness is rising everywhere throughout the United States, and most markedly in California.
There are ways to reverse this trend.
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all drug to cure cancer, there is no sole solution to homelessness. The individuals struggling to emerge from it are unique, with unique needs and capabilities.
Therefore, California should abandon “housing first” as its only approach to helping the homeless, especially eliminating the practice of placing already traumatized children into housing where drug use and continued negative behavior by adults is permitted.
Instead, policymakers should prioritize the funding of gender-responsive and child-responsive approaches for those struggling with homelessness as was suggested by Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez who called for a “Families First” focus to prioritize the unique needs of women and children.
Limited dollars should be spent as effectively as possible. Lawmakers should allow for, and prioritize funding for, programs that directly connect housing with service engagement to help people address the root causes of their homelessness in order to permanently exit it.
To address the undercounting of homeless children, California should request that HUD adopt the federal Department of Education’s definition of homelessness, which is both more realistic and comprehensive, so the growing number of homeless children in America will be able to be served under the increased funding allocated to homelessness at both the state and federal levels.
Finally, the California Department of Education should follow the state auditor’s recommendation to better monitor student homelessness. Sadly, the department says it will not conduct an analysis of its staff training related to homeless children. Gov. Newsom should demand otherwise.
Unless Newsom changes course immediately by addressing the unique and pressing needs of the homeless population, especially children, California’s homeless wave will become a tsunami in the future.