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An army of obstacles stands between LA’s homeless students and the classroom

After losing her apartment Nicolette Palombo was stuck in an impossible predicament: she couldn’t get her kids to school because they were without reliable shelter and constantly moving, she couldn’t get housing because she needed a job — and she couldn’t get a job because she had to provide childcare all day.

As a result, her nine and 11-year-old daughter were out of school for months as the family bounced from couch to couch and at times lived in their car.

“The landlord decided he was going to sell the property, so with last-minute notice we were told that we had to vacate the premises, and then for a good year we moved around,” said Palombo. “It’s been hard for us to get back on our feet.”

They are not alone. In the Los Angeles Unified School District the number of homeless students increased by 15.5% in the last academic year, from 11,172 to 12,902, according to a district spokesperson.

Nicolette Palombo moved with her daughters into a small unit at the PATH Family Shelter in Los Angeles. She said, “We are grateful for what we have,” on Friday, April 28, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

And, just like Palombo’s daughters, many of these students face barriers in getting to the classroom.

This academic year, 55% of LAUSD’s homeless students have been chronically absent, meaning they have missed 10% or more of the school year. Last year, that number was an even more alarming 66%.

“This is unacceptable,” said LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho at a recent press conference highlighting the district’s efforts to support homeless students.

“There should be a significant degree of condemnation, frustration — and yes even anger — over the fact that in one of the largest cities of one of the largest states in our country, this is a reality,” he added.

Denise Miranda, director of student support programs at LAUSD, said that the true number of homeless students in the district is likely much higher than the reported number.

“Experts say that 5%-10% of students below the poverty line may experience periodic homelessness,” said Miranda. “So based on experts the real number should be closer to 25,000 to 50,000 students.”

The undercount is largely due to the fact that many parents are reluctant to disclose their true housing status on surveys, she said.

“We’ve had families share with us that they feel that if they are experiencing homelessness, child welfare may intervene and remove the children,” Miranda said. “Families are also ashamed to admit that they are experiencing homelessness and want to protect their children from that stigma.”

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho discusses issues regarding homeless students during an iAttend Outreach Event at the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission Friday, April 28, 2023. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

After giving remarks regarding the homeless student population, LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho talks with San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission Program Manager Josie Casarrubias (left), and unhoused parent Karen Elizabeth Puruncajas Reinoso, in the new Calming Study Area for students at the facility Friday, April 28, 2023. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho talks to a parent while touring a new Calming Study Area for students at the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission during an iAttend Outreach Event on Friday, April 28, 2023. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

After giving remarks regarding the homeless student population, LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tours a Calming Study Area for students at the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission during an iAttend Outreach Event Friday, April 28, 2023. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

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Jennifer Kottke, the homeless education project director for the L.A. County Office of Education, said poor attendance among low-income and unhoused students is a countywide problem.

“Chronic absenteeism has always been an issue we’ve had to battle, but the increase in need is definitely there,” Kottke said. “The economy, with the inflation rates, and issues with the lack of housing, and the cost of housing, is almost a perfect storm.”

Low-income and unhoused students miss school for a wide variety of reasons, she said. They may need to help support their families by holding a job, may be living in temporary housing far from their school, or they may feel embarrassed to show up in class because of the state of their hygiene and clothing.

Absences not only harm students’ academic progress, but cut off their access to school resources such as free breakfast and lunch, counseling, clothing giveaways, health clinics. In addition, staff have less chance of flagging signs of abuse among students who are often absent.

“Schools are the safe havens for children in our community,” said Carvalho. “It’s important for kids to be in school, not only for the purpose of gaining a great education, but also for them to develop physically and psychologically in a healthy way.”

Nicolette Palombo fortunately was able to regain access to those resources in March, after she moved into a “micro” apartment unit at a shelter operated by PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and enrolled her kids in local LAUSD schools.

She and her daughters were under a constant state of stress while they lived in other people’s spaces or out of  their car. Now, they finally have some space of their own.

“It’s small, but it has its own little kitchen and restroom and it’s perfect because we don’t need anything more right now,” Palombo said. “It’s just us and we are grateful for what we have.”

Enrolling at LAUSD was a big win. Her daughters were assigned individual education programs to help address their learning loss, received free backpacks filled with school supplies, and access to counselors who understand their housing situation.

But the challenges continue.

Both of Palombo’s children are behind in their academics and have difficulty concentrating in class. The kids say they are reluctant to make friends because they have already had to cut ties at other schools and fear they will have to do so again.

And her 9-year-old daughter has been bullied. During her first two weeks at her new school, she was pushed down the stairs by another student, Palombo said.

“Sometimes (bullies) feel like because that kid is less fortunate than them, their feelings aren’t valid or they’re just an easy target,” said Palombo, who thinks some harassment is related to her daughter’s home situation.

Alicia Galvez, program manager for family services at PATH, said that several kids living at a shelter she helps operate in Los Feliz have also been bullied at their own LAUSD school. One parent, she said, pulled a child out of the school due to harassment.

“It (bullying) makes the situation even more difficult, because they are already experiencing the trauma of being homeless and the instability of it,” Galvez said. “It breaks my heart when I hear that someone is being bullied because they are homeless.”

Although LAUSD does not disclose a student’s housing status, their clothing and other markers can become a de facto disclosure to other students.

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“I do know that some students have felt like they don’t belong, just because they don’t have the latest outfit or the latest iPhone,” said Galvez.

“Students feel some sort of shame in disclosing their homeless situation. … It can be embarrassing to be like, ‘My parents can’t afford having an apartment’,” she added.

The district is working to address the issues through increased counseling services, and is preparing to launch a mobile laundry service later this school year so that a child’s dirty clothes are not not a barrier to attendance.

However, they are fighting an uphill battle as the number of students experiencing homelessness increases and pandemic era funding bumps for the district and its partner homeless service providers wind down.

Kottke, for example, faces the prospect of cutting staff in the L.A. County Office of Education’s Homeless Program down to just herself once federal funding from the American Rescue Plan runs out in September.

“Sometimes all I can do do is laugh about it, because if I don’t I’ll just end up crying,” she said. “I feel like people don’t understand the enormity of the problem.”

The scale of the problem also hits home for Superintendent Carvalho, who has made clear that supporting the district’s homeless students is a top priority.

“This is personal for somebody like me. I was homeless, I slept under a bridge,” he said. “It hurts me that kids in this community are experiencing the same condition I lived through 40 years ago.”

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