Joshua Emerson Smith/California WatchMakayla Vigil (left), shown with her family, is living in a homeless shelter for women and children.
This fall, Makayla Vigil will be a sophomore at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico. For most of her school career, she made the honor roll. But last semester, after her family lost their apartment, she earned C’s and D’s.
“My grades did suffer a lot from just not caring,” said Vigil, 16. “Before, when I had good grades, I was thinking, 'I want to impress my family.' But then when you become homeless and you don’t really have anything, you just don’t care.”
California – hit particularly hard by the combination of a high cost of living, the housing crisis and a lack of jobs – has more homeless students than any other state in the nation. In 2009, nearly a third of all homeless students nationwide lived in California, according to the federal Department of Education.
And those students are struggling academically.
Nationwide, about half of homeless students in third through eighth grade score proficient in math and English, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Education report [PDF]. In high school, about half of homeless students are proficient in English, but math proficiency falls to about 38 percent.
For the 2009-10 school year in California, only 39 percent of homeless students in third through eighth grade scored proficient or above in math, 35 percent in English, according to California Department of Education data that tracks schools receiving federal funding for homeless students. In high school, 33 percent of homeless students scored proficient or above in math, 41 percent in English.
Vigil is one of thousands of students in California struggling with the challenges of homelessness. During the 2004-05 school year, 148,443 students were identified as homeless, according to the state Education Department. By 2008-09, the number of homeless students nearly doubled, to 288,233.
“The economy is in a struggling state, and we are seeing more and more families losing their homes and becoming homeless,” said Leanne Wheeler, the department's coordinator of homeless education.
Wheeler's position is mandated by the federal McKinney-Vento Act [PDF], which funds homeless services. The act requires states to employ county and district homeless coordinators. It also guarantees transportation to and from school, even if a homeless student moves from his or her school of origin, in an attempt to prevent the academic challenges of changing schools.
The California Department of Education's Homeless Children & Youth Education website uses the McKinney-Vento Act guidelines to define homelessness:
- Children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason
- Children who may be living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, shelters or awaiting foster care placement
- Children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings
- Children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings
- Migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are children who are living in similar circumstances listed above
Vigil falls into the second category. Since March, she has been living in a homeless shelter for women and children with her mother and older sister. Her sister is 18 and plans to attend community college in the fall. Both sisters have concerns about finding places to study and get their homework done. But Vigil said high school is especially hard because many of her peers tease her for being poor.
“People at school are really rude,” she said. “If you don’t have the right clothes, if you don’t have the right shoes or whatever, you get put down. People just judge you for everything. And then being homeless, they think, 'Oh, she’s trash.' "
Vigil’s mother currently supports the family by herself with a $500 monthly unemployment check. The sisters’ father recently got out of prison and is staying at another homeless shelter nearby.
Homeless students are a symptom of the rise in homeless families, said Ellen Bassuk, president of The National Center on Family Homelessness.
“One of the reasons for homelessness is the changing demographics of the family,” she said. “The vast majority of homeless families are headed by women alone.”
According to the most recent Homeless Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, between 2007 and 2009, the number of homeless individuals dropped, but the number of homeless families increased by 30 percent.
Less than one-fourth of children from homeless families graduate from high school, Bassuk said.
“The high school graduation rates are shockingly low,” she said. “The proficiencies in reading and math of homeless children are extremely poor. The loss of contribution to society is huge.”
Vigil said she plans to do much better in school this coming year. Like her sister, she recognizes that for many homeless students, getting into college can be a way to find stable housing.
“I’m going to try to get all my homework done in class so I don’t have to bring it (to the shelter)," Vigil said. "Sometimes, you got to wait for the bus, so you just try to do what you can, do some at lunch.”
But she also feels stifled and is angry about assumptions people make.
“(People think) homeless kids are just going to end up going to prison or being bad people,” she said. “People are expecting all the homeless stereotypes.”