Advocates for Homeless Youth Push for State Funding and Local Control

Advocates are urging for a sum of $13 million in specific state funding and for the ratification of a bill that would aid homeless students and youth leaving foster care, as schools confront the impending conclusion of significant pandemic-era federal funding this year.

The plea originates from the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, a co-sponsor of Assembly Bill 2137.

The proposal set forth by Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva introduces initiatives to streamline the provision of direct services by local organizations serving foster youth, ensuring that these programs are informed when foster students decline federal financial aid applications, and mandating districts to outline strategies for better identifying homeless students.

Transitioning from foster care to independence predisposes youth to a heightened risk of homelessness, and some state-funded programs focused on providing housing support to this demographic could face elimination if the state’s current budget proposal is accepted as currently outlined.

“Without having the fundamental infrastructure in place within the state to recognize and preventatively assist them, we are destined to continue failing this group and witnessing a surge in chronic adulthood homelessness, an issue that garners widespread concern,” remarked Margaret Olmos, head of the National Center for Youth Law’s compassionate education systems team in California.

The suggested funding allotment would serve as a partial replacement for the expiring federal funds, required to be allocated before October and expended by January of the subsequent year, while the bill aims to enact three stipulations channeling existing resources towards aiding foster and homeless youth, simultaneously striving to bolster their high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

The bill accentuates “the necessity of being proactive with our foster youth and preventing them from potentially facing homelessness unless we intervene,” elucidated Quirk-Silva. “It’s a means to engage with them within the education system.”

The cry for state funding specifically earmarked for homeless youth, a cause long championed by school personnel and advocates, and the backing of the bill, arise amidst California grappling with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit and a surge in student homelessness rates across numerous counties that have exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re not turning a blind eye to the situation. … History shows that during budget deficits, the number of families and children facing homelessness inevitably rises,” noted Olmos.

Advocates perceive both the appeal for $13 million in dedicated state funding and the passage of Assembly Bill 2137 as pivotal strides in thwarting the escalation of youth homelessness.

State data and recent research underline that students experiencing homelessness and those in the foster care system are markedly more prone to chronic absenteeism, suspensions, lower academic performance, school instability, or dropping out of school.

Dedicated state funding

In 2021, California received nearly $100 million to bolster the identification, enrollment, and educational involvement of homeless youth. This federal funding, provided under the American Rescue Plan, was a one-time allocation during the pandemic.

Educators lauded this funding as vital in their endeavors to stay abreast of their homeless students’ needs and provide effective support, such as temporary motel stays post-eviction, hiring staff for outreach to potentially homeless families, distributing gas debit cards, among other measures.

While homeless students identified in California are eligible for certain resources, the state lacks dedicated funding specifically for this student subset. Some states, like Washington, have allocated state funds to replace the expiring American Rescue Plan funds.

Despite some funding allocated in the state’s education formula for high-needs students, including homeless individuals, the allocation doesn’t align proportionately with the actual number of homeless students statewide. In practice, homeless students account for less than 1% of the intended funding allocation according to a study released last year by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Furthermore, this state funding is contingent on first identifying homeless students, a critical step that educators stress must be funded in itself.

“This demographic is the only one that must self-disclose,” mentioned Olmos. “The entire system falters if there isn’t someone taking the initiative to account for and support this population.”

While there are federal initiatives like the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act that offer dedicated funding, the distribution of grants in California involves a competitive process, making the funds exceedingly scarce. In the 2018-19 academic year, for instance, only 73 out of nearly 2,300 local education agencies in California received McKinney-Vento funds; just 103 agencies applied for the grants as per a state audit.

Prior to the pandemic, McKinney-Vento grants to California amounted to about $13 million annually, a sum that aligns with the call for $13 million in state funding.

This figure may not yield the broad statewide impact felt with the American Rescue Plan funds, but Olmos emphasized that “at the very least, it signifies an initial commitment” from the state.

Proposal to refine current resources

Assemblymember Quirk-Silva, the proponent of Assembly Bill 2137, envisions the bill as a means to forestall youth homelessness by supporting current foster youth within educational settings. With a background as an elementary school teacher spanning three decades, she now serves District 67, encompassing cities from Cerritos in Los Angeles County to Fullerton in Orange County.

“We recognize their presence within the homeless youth demographic, and it’s imperative that we exhaust all efforts before they leave their placements,” articulated Quirk-Silva. “While some proceed to college, enhancing their prospects, many others stray from that trajectory, rendering them even more susceptible.”

In a bid to optimize existing resources, the bill outlines three tenets aimed at engaging foster youth in schools by catering to their individual requirements.

The primary provision within the bill seeks to grant added flexibility to county Foster Youth Services Coordinating Programs in extending direct services to students, coordinating with local educational agencies to offer resources like tutoring and FAFSA assistance to foster youth pupils.

Presently, these county programs, termed FYSCPs, are constrained in delivering such services until they obtain written affirmation from the local educational agency affirming that they are unable to access alternative state, federal, local, or private funding for providing said services.

According to the bill’s co-sponsors, which include the advocacy group John Burton Advocates for Youth, this requirement acts as a hindrance since many local educational agencies are hesitant to issue written certifications of their inability to cater to foster youth needs, resulting in FYSCPs being unable to fulfill their service mandates even when the need is evident and funds are available.

The second provision entails notification to coordinating programs when students choose to waive federal financial aid applications, enabling timely intervention and guidance for foster youth regarding post-high school options.

The final provision mandates that districts incorporate plans in their three-year strategic blueprints on increasing the identification of homeless students.

Assemblymember Quirk-Silva anticipates widespread legislative support for the bill. Cost estimates for the bill’s implementation are yet to be determined.

“Based on my teaching experience, I’ve witnessed the vulnerability of this population,” shared Quirk-Silva. “Often in dire need of support, they are frequently deprived of adequate assistance.”

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