Homelessness has become a critical measure of school performance in Orange County – fueling absences, dropouts, low test scores and limited literacy.

And for one Anaheim high school teacher, it’s gotten to a point where academics take the back seat.

“I want to make sure that this student is eating, that the student does not show any signs of depression, or, you know, suicidal tendencies,” said Lizzette Barrios-Gracian, who taught at Gilbert High School this past school year in the Anaheim Union High School District. 

“Your curriculum will sometimes not be completely covered, because you have to go at a different pace when you have multiple students who are homeless,” Barrios-Gracian said.

How many OC children would you guess are unhoused?

The last official County of Orange tally — in which homeless people are surveyed over one night — puts that number around 700

Yet ask the public school system, and you’ll get a more staggering child homelessness figure of 23,246.

But even that might be discounting it.

In a new report on child homelessness this month, Orange County grand jurors pose a number closer to 30,000, “according to a number of non-profit organizations and subject matter experts.”

The data disparities stem from differing definitions as to what qualifies a child as homeless, which can in turn determine whether a family qualifies for housing assistance or not. 

Whereas the county’s biennial homeless survey limits its one-night tally to people in shelters, transitional housing and encampments, OC’s 28 school districts — by law — must define homeless students as those who lack a fixed nighttime residence.

That includes kids whose families are doubling or tripling up — kids who sleep in living rooms or in a room they share with others out of economic hardship.

School districts are also required to make accommodations for these students through designated staff members who act as a kid’s “liaison,” ensuring they’re still enrolled and have things like food and transportation. 

But a lack of resources and housing options and a myriad of duties have spread these staff members thin across OC.

They’re so stretched that a liaison survey conducted last year by the Orange County Dept. of Education (OCDE) found that “40% of respondents indicated that their [child homelessness] work comprised less than 10% of their job duties.”

Responding to the grand jury report in a Wednesday emailed statement, OCDE spokesperson Ian Hanigan said ​​”OCDE welcomes research, feedback and input that can help us refine our services.”

“As we carefully review the Grand Jury’s findings and recommendations, we will continue to work closely with our educational partners at all levels to amplify best practices, track our progress and make data-informed decisions that produce the best possible outcomes for all learners.”

It’s an issue that grand jurors say fuels a multi-generational cycle of homelessness in the region’s 28 school districts.

And it has them recommending that district and county officials do something about it – like more support for school liaisons to devote their full attention to their most vulnerable students.

Not to mention more options for emergency family housing.

“The County of Orange has several housing options available for the homeless, however most are not available to families,” they wrote in their report. “There are not enough shelter options for families in Orange County, nor are there enough mid- to long-term solutions such as temporary and permanent supportive housing; most housing has a wait list of one to eight years, and some have closed their waiting list.” 

On top of that, “most homeless families do not qualify to join the waiting lists as they are not considered homeless under the definition of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), while at the same time they are considered homeless under the definition of the McKinney-Vento Act.”

It comes as cities across the state struggle to build more affordable housing geared for low-income families – meaning affordable housing for a four-person family making less than $108,400 annually in Orange County, according to the state Housing and Community Development Department. 

Median income – without factoring household size – in Orange County is a little over $100,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Anaheim, it’s $82,000.

The grand jury’s findings don’t surprise Barrios-Gracian, the Gilbert High School teacher in Anaheim. 

“I hear the stories from my students about what it’s like to live inside a car, or what it’s like to rent a single room for an entire family,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview reacting to the report.

More than three-quarters of students at high schools across the Anaheim High School District qualify for free or reduced price lunches, according data from the state Department of Education

At some high schools, more than 80% of the student body is eligible for the meals, which is used as a benchmark for student poverty rates. 

Barrios-Gracianr recalls how during the pandemic, kids were stuck in the small quarters their families shared. 

“Having to cook was difficult.”

She also recalled an incident this past school year where a student at her school nearly died by suicide.

“And his view was, ‘You saved me from what? I have to go back to living in my car, and my situation is not changing.’”

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