Business & Economy

Child homelessness has economic costs for LA schools

Tandra Dixon and her children moved in and out of shelters, motels, and their car during years of homelessness, before finding an apartment in South L.A.
Tandra Dixon and her children moved in and out of shelters, motels, and their car during years of homelessness, before finding an apartment in South L.A.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Among the many societal costs of child homelessness, L.A. County school districts lose at least $14.5 million in funding every year because of chronically absent homeless children.

The number, calculated by the L.A. County Office of Education was presented this week as a small piece of a broader effort to quantify the economic impact of youth homelessness.

“When you ignore a homeless child, that's not only morally bankrupt, it's economic suicide,” said Booker Pearson, chair of L.A.’s Public Social Services Commission. At the commission's request, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last year solicited a report, which is underway, into the financial cost to public services in the county of L.A.'s growing population of homeless kids.

There are nearly 63,000 homeless public school children in Los Angeles County, according to the L.A. County Office of Education, a 25 percent increase from 2011. 

For child advocates, who often argue children are ignored in conversations about homelessness, the move is strategic. The City of Los Angeles is poised to spend $1.2 billion in voter-approved bond money on housing for homeless. L.A. County, presuming returns from Tuesday's election continue in the same vein, is poised to raise $355 million annually for homeless services through Measure H, which currently has the percentage of the vote it needs to pass.

Demonstrating the current burden youth homelessness places on L.A.'s social welfare and school systems could provide leverage for child advocates who want to see kids prioritized when that money gets spent.

"We don't get a seat at the funding table unless and until we can show that it costs more money to ignore these little three-year-olds and five-year-olds and their mother in the back of a car," Pearson said. 

Based on estimates from the state's Office of the Attorney General, there are more than 12,500 homeless students in L.A. county who are chronically truant, meaning they missed 18 or more days due to unexcused absences. Those absences each cost schools $64 per day in funding, totaling about $14.5 million in a year.

Melissa Schoonmaker, of LACOE, who calculated the figure, said the number was "very conservative" and the true economic cost likely much higher. The number does not include, for instance, the large number of homeless kids who miss school frequently, but haven't reached the definition of "chronically truant." Nor does it factor in the 12 percent of homeless children who never set foot inside a classroom.

"It's the minimum amount that's a potential loss," Schoonmaker said. 

Quantifying anything having to do with homeless kids can be challenging, as agencies define homelessness differently. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses a narrow definition, the U.S.Department of Education and many social welfare agencies include children who live in motels or are couch-surfing. 

Regardless of the true number, Union Rescue Mission CEO Rev. Andy Bales said the true costs are unquantifiable.

"What's the cost to kids when they tell you a man was murdered in the garage they were sleeping in?" he said. "What's the cost of poor social skills, the stress of worrying something will happen to your family?"

The mission, he said, has seen 196 children and their moms and dads in its Skid Row shelter this year. When single men walk into the shelter, they're more or less in pretty good shape, he said. The children are different.

"They have been completely devastated by homelessness," he said. "You see the horrible fear on their faces."