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More SF students are homeless—even as enrollment declined

A child walks into the gym where his family, along with other families experiencing homelessness, sleep at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School. | Alexis Cuarezma for The Standard

After San Francisco recorded an increase in family homelessness at the end of 2022, the number of unhoused students has now swelled across California, according to new enrollment data from the state education department. 

The number of unhoused students enrolled in California schools this year increased by roughly 15,500 individuals to reach 187,298 total unhoused students, up 9% from the 2021-22 academic year. At the same time, statewide enrollment decreased to 5.9 million students, a slight drop from the previous year. 

Education analysts say the cause for increased student homelessness is the perennial shortage of affordable housing in the state, exacerbated by pandemic conditions. The state’s share of unhoused students is edging closer to pre-pandemic levels, in which nearly 195,000 students experienced homelessness in the 2019-20 school year. 

It is the first time since 2020 that the state saw an increase in its homeless student population. 

“As a state, we have not made the housing and well-being of our population a priority,” Angela James, a researcher at UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, told Cal Matters. “Sadly, social policies have not been responsive to the needs of young people and their families.”

Buena Vista Horace Mann has a unique program providing shelter for families experiencing homelessness. | Alexis Cuarezma for The Standard

Though student homelessness increased at more than half of the state’s 20 largest school districts, San Francisco Unified was one of the few to clock a slight decrease in the total number of unhoused students since the pandemic began. In 2019, roughly 2,500 SFUSD students were unhoused, compared with the 2,370 documented in this academic year.

Yet the district’s share of unhoused students as a percent of the total enrollment has steadily grown since 2017—perhaps due as much to SFUSD’s persistent enrollment problems as to the increasing number of families experiencing homelessness. The city logged 616 unhoused families enrolled in response programs in the last quarter of 2022, up from 578 families in the prior three months. 

Unhoused students—which includes those living in motels, trailer parks, campgrounds or public spaces—face increased challenges in school environments. Compared with other student groups, homeless youth in SF schools have a significantly higher chronic absenteeism rate and a lower graduation rate.   

Many are also from asylum-seeking families, whose children comprise roughly 80% of the 620 immigrant students that arrived at San Francisco’s public school district in 2022. 

Racial disparities persist among the unhoused student population: Hispanic or Latino students are most likely to experience homelessness, comprising 44.5% of all unhoused students. African American students, who comprise a small share of SF Unified enrollment, continue to report disproportionately high student homelessness rates. 

The share of unhoused Asian students, in particular, doubled from 2017 to 2022, rising from 241 unhoused students to 583 this school year. At the same time, the number of enrolled Asian students dropped by more than 2,000 students.

San Francisco Unified and state officials spearheaded efforts in recent years to support unhoused students and other groups at imminent risk of experiencing homelessness. 

California legislators introduced a bill in March to increase protections for LGBTQ+ foster youth—a group that faces higher risks of homelessness and mental health issues. 

In 2018, the district also opened a unique shelter for public school children and their families at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School, based out of the school’s gym. During the day, sleeping mats are piled up to make room for regular student activities at the bilingual Mission District school. 

Enyel Cruz sits on a mattress where he and his family sleep at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School. | Alexis Cuarezma for The Standard

Yet homelessness in San Francisco remains high, and the demand for services like Buena Vista’s shelter often outpaces available space. 

“We’re riding the very, very edge of our capacity limits,” said Richard Whipple, interim director of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. “Nonprofit partners are well beyond their capacity. Every day, more folks arrive. We’re in a very precarious situation.”