Homeless students in San Diego County likely undercounted, audit finds

Auditors said school districts need to do more
Kids in school
Posted at 6:13 PM, Nov 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-09 20:20:48-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- There were about 20,600 students considered homeless in schools throughout San Diego in the 2017-18 school year, but the actual number is likely higher, according to the findings of a new state audit.

The report by California State Auditor Elaine Howle concluded districts across the state are not doing enough to identify homeless students and connect them with the services they need for tutoring, transportation, and school supplies. The report also faulted the state Department of Education for "inadequate oversight."

The audit was requested after Department of Education data showed more than 25 percent of California districts reported having no students experiencing homelessness despite the state’s ongoing homelessness crisis.

RELATED: San Diego homeless count 2019: Data shows over 8,000 living on county streets or in shelters

“We cannot serve them and work to improve their educational outcomes if we don’t know who they are,” said San Diego County Office of Education Homeless Coordinator Susie Terry.

California uses a broad definition of homelessness under the McKinney-Veto Homeless Assistance Act. About 75 percent of students considered homeless are living in a household with two or more family units for economic reasons, a scenario known as “doubling up,” Terry said.

"Doubling up" is often a last ditch-effort to avoid life in a shelter or a vehicle, and a time when services are critically needed, she said.

RELATED: San Diego County ranks fourth for number of homeless in the United States

Auditors looked at the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches and compared that to research showing 5 to 10 percent of those students typically experience homelessness.

Using that benchmark, the San Diego Unified School District scored well, with 8,129 homeless students and an identification rate of 11 percent.

Districts with less than a 5 percent identification warrant further scrutiny and state oversight, the audit said. San Marcos Unified, Oceanside Unified, and Chula Vista Elementary District all had homelessness identification rates of 2 percent or less.

RELATED: San Diego city council approves $1.9 billion homelessness plan

Terry said identifying homeless students can be a challenge because districts use different approaches, and families often don’t want to be identified.

“There’s a lot of fear around what’s going to happen if the school knows we’re homeless,” she said. “There are fears around if child welfare will be called, if immigration will be called, if they’re going to be allowed to continue going to school.”

Each school district is required to have a homeless coordinator, but the duties are often tacked on to another position, she said.

“There isn’t always time and resources available for district liaisons to do the job they need to do around identification,” said Terry.