Lisa Coker, a staffer with Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, a nonprofit agency that helps homeless youth and families in Santa Maria, distributes school supplies to students at Santa Maria High School. Coker also helps families seeking emergency shelter at Good Samaritan Shelter, where this family of two adults and six children share three bunk beds. (Photo by Iris Schneider for EdSource)

California schools undercounted their homeless students by at least 37 percent in 2017-18, according to a recent state audit. The state failed to provide those students with transportation, counseling, connections to social services and other benefits they’re entitled to under state and federal law.

The audit, conducted by the office of State Auditor Elaine Howle, found that schools and districts reported only 270,000 homeless children, although it’s likely that at least 370,000 — roughly 10 percent of all the low-income children in California schools — lack stable housing, the audit.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, homelessness is defined as children living in cars, motels, shelters, campgrounds or doubled up with another family, including other family members, due to financial hardship. School districts use the same definition.

“It’s not shocking,” said Tasminda Dhaliwal, a research associate in the USC Rossier School of Education’s Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance and an expert on K-12 student homelessness. “But I’m pleased to see the issue getting some attention. Obviously, we can’t solve homelessness, but I think this audit is a step in the right direction.”

Schools are required to survey families every year on their living situations and report the number of homeless students to the California Department of Education. Under the Local Control Funding Formula, schools get extra funding for homeless students to provide them a variety of services.

But too many schools are undercounting their homeless students — or not counting them at all, according to the audit. Most of the state’s districts and schools identified fewer than 5 percent of their low-income students as homeless, even though the number should be closer to 10 percent, according to the audit.

Auditors visited five districts and one charter school, and found that none of the six had adequately trained staff to identify homeless students and provide them services. Two did not provide the required housing questionnaires to families and five did not post information about services available to homeless families, as required by law.

The districts were Greenfield Union School District in Bakersfield, Vallejo Unified, Gridley Unified in Butte County, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified in Los Angeles County and San Bernardino City Unified. The charter school was Birmingham Community Charter High School in Van Nuys. The report didn’t specify why those districts were chosen.

Auditors faulted the California Department of Education for not monitoring schools more closely. The department agreed with most of the findings and promised to improve its outreach to schools, but declined to conduct an analysis of staff training related to homeless children, as the audit recommended, citing budget constraints. The schools and districts also agreed with the findings and said they’d make the recommended improvements.

California has the highest number of homeless children in the country, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, due to a shortage of affordable housing, relatively high rates of poverty and addiction, and natural disasters.

Homeless students tend to struggle in school, studies have shown. They’re more likely to drop out, be suspended and be chronically absent, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. And not finishing high school is the top risk factor for continued homelessness.

“That’s why this is so important that schools do a better job identifying and serving homeless students,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a nonprofit that studies homelessness and education.

“For a lot of kids, it’s the difference between graduating and not graduating, between continuing to be homeless and getting out of homelessness,” she said. “And for a state like California, which is exploding at the seams, schools need to be much more proactive.”

Schools should train everyone who comes in contact with children — including coaches, attendance clerks, bus drivers, cafeteria staff as well as teachers — to be alert to possible signs of homelessness, such as frequent hunger, tiredness, stress or tardiness, she said.

Efforts to find homeless children shouldn’t stop at the campus boundary, she said. Schools should post information about homeless rights and services at places homeless families are likely to be: the laundromat, libraries, convenience stores, shelters and motels, in addition to the front desk at the school.

But the most important factor is trust, Dhaliwal said. Some families are reluctant to report their housing status because of the social stigma, fear of deportation or fear of their children being put into foster care or otherwise reported to Child Protective Services.

“Given the national political context,” that’s not an unreasonable fear, Dhaliwal said, noting that the Trump administration has threatened to deport immigrants who seek social services, even if they’re in the U.S. legally.

“That’s why trust is so important,” she said. “Families need to know that school is a safe place, somewhere they can turn in times of crisis or need. Schools need to create a welcoming environment. That seems like a small task but it can’t be overstated how much positive impact that can have.”

Story originally published by EdSource.