Opinion: Schools need county support to stem homeless youth crisis

“Audrey” and her mom have been living with one of her mom’s co-workers for the last two months. The two of them are sleeping on a couch, which Audrey says explains her exhaustion during the day and tendency to fall asleep in class. When asked, Audrey insists she’s not homeless: “That’s the people who are sleeping on the streets.”

In California, just over 3 percent of the K-12 public school population was homeless last year, according to data submitted by schools to the State Department of Education. In San Jose Unified School District, that translates to approximately 900 students.

Those numbers include students living in cars, motels, shelters, on the street or “doubled up” in the homes of others. The estimate is likely to be low because families can be reluctant to answer surveys truthfully and because homeless youth drift in and out of homelessness. They might not be counted on a particular day.

The bottom line is that too many children and teenagers are not stably housed and, as a result, are far less likely than their peers to succeed in school. This severely curtails their later options for economic stability as adults.

District enrollment is declining as families move out of the area because of prohibitive rents. Student data shows that when students enter one school and remain there until they are promoted (grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12), they do much better than their peers who move from school to school, often in the course of one year.

Unstable housing is further complicated by other factors related to family stability such as access to sufficient nutrition and consistent health care, or engagement with the juvenile justice, foster care or child welfare systems. These complex circumstances lead in many cases to anxiety, physical ailments, trauma and worse, making it challenging for students to focus on school work.

School districts provide support for families who are homeless or in danger of becoming so, but they can’t solve the crisis of homeless youth. County government, responsible for the welfare of our most vulnerable residents, has a significant role to play.

First, Santa Clara County must expand the supply of affordable housing by working with its 15 cities, leveraging Measure A housing-bond dollars. We need to build permanent, supportive housing for our most vulnerable community members; create incentives to build tax-credit low-income housing for working-class families; and form public-private partnerships to make home ownership possible for our teachers, firefighters and other public sector professionals who provide indispensable services to our communities.

The housing needs to be developed in concert with expanded public transportation so we are not adding to sprawl, or causing environmental damage or decreased quality of life.

Second, our county must protect access to health care services and expand services to meet the behavioral and mental health needs of chronically homeless individuals as well as other children and youth whose needs are not being met.

Third, an increased focus on early childhood care and education will identify families in crisis or on the edge of homelessness earlier and connect them to services that can stabilize them before their children start kindergarten.

What I experience as a school board member reflects what is happening to our population across Santa Clara County. In order to see significant transformations at the school and individual student level, we must address the systems and conditions that underlie the barriers to success, not only for the sake of today’s children but for the economic, physical and behavioral health of our entire community.

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