Jeanne Awrey says people are often shocked to learn that Orange County is home to approximately 28,000 homeless students.
“That’s about 5.5 percent of our overall student population that has been consistently homeless,” she says. “We really haven’t dipped below 5.5 percent.”
As the coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education’s homeless education program, Awrey oversees the HOPES Collaborative, which stands for Homeless Outreach Promoting Educational Success. The OCDE-led partnership includes county homeless prevention leaders, school district representatives, community groups, faith-based organizations, law enforcement agencies, and shelter and housing providers.
Awrey, who has been with OCDE since 2001, says the HOPES Collaborative works to remove enrollment barriers for students, providing a foundation for academic stability. But it also connects students and their families with critical resources.
“We can get kids in school, but if we don’t try to help with getting services, including housing support and other areas, we may not see those children again,” she says. “So our ultimate goal is education, but we collaborate with the community to make sure there are support services wrapping around the whole family.”
We recently sat down with Awrey to talk about her work and OCDE’s efforts to ensure a quality education for all students.
We’ve seen a lot of recent news coverage about homelessness in Orange County and the lack of affordable housing overall. Are you seeing a rise in the number of students who are identified as homeless?
I’ve been tracking our data for the past 10 years, and overall the rates have remained consistent, fluctuating between 5 and 6 percent. At the same time, these rates are based on the number of families who self-identify as homeless, and we don’t know for sure how many have opted not to disclose their status.
One thing I have noticed is that we used to have more elementary students identified than high school students. Now it’s about even. So the question becomes, are they staying homeless the entire time? Or are we just being able to reach out and get our teams in there to verify the numbers more? Because I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a higher number of families, but there is a higher number of older students who have been identified.
Are school districts required to track these rates through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act? Can you tell us about that legislation?
Yes. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is making sure that educational barriers are removed for students who experience homelessness. So, for instance, the law is able to get students enrolled in school immediately, even if they don’t have proof of residency. If I go into the local school district and they ask me for proof of residency and I don’t have any, the school personnel needs to ask a few more questions. They might say, “Well, tell me a little bit about your living situation? Is this temporary?” so we can gain more information. If the family literally has no documentation to show, we enroll them immediately.
How does the law define homelessness for public education?
The homeless education definition differs from the HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) definition in that it includes includes people who are doubled and tripled up due to economic hardship. You could also be living in a motel or living in a shelter. Or you could be unsheltered, which could be living in a park, living in your car or anywhere that’s not a public dwelling.
What kinds of living situations are you seeing in Orange County?
The families we see are the families that are literally living in their cars, or the parents are staying in one location, staying with friends one night and moving around or staying in motels. We really don’t see as many of the families that are literally on the street. When we look at our identified numbers in the county, over 95 percent of our (homeless) families — our children — are identified as doubled and tripled up. We have less than 1 percent who are actually unsheltered and a little less than 2 percent that are in shelters or living in motels. So the majority of them are housed. They’re just not permanently housed.
How are homeless students identified?
It’s two-fold. It could be the parents sharing their story, their information, and the school will then identify. Or it might be a parent seeing public notifications and coming forward and saying, “I think I qualify.” We also work with our community agencies, our shelter providers as well, so they know what the McKinney-Vento definition is. So when they have a family that’s living in a shelter, that they can make sure those students are being able to be enrolled.
Our role here at the Orange County Department of Education is to help support the school districts as they work with families and notify them of their rights. But the school districts are ultimately the ones that enroll the students and find the services for the students.
What kinds of services are provided?
Within the school system, the automatic requirement once they’ve been identified is they automatically are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. Then it really depends. The services depend on the needs of the student.
Upon identifying the student, the school district liaison is responsible for assessing the needs of that student. They would be talking with the parent as well, determining if the child needs tutoring, or if the child needs an after-school program, or transportation or school supplies.
How does the HOPES Collaborative work?
The HOPES Collaborative is a collaboration within the community of Orange County, so it would be faith-based organizations, social services agencies, government agencies — all agencies that are helping to work with homeless families.
I work specifically with the school district liaisons, host quarterly meetings to help bring in services and support networks for them, and make sure they’re in compliance with the federal requirements for homeless education. We also help provide those links to some of the other needs. For instance, there may be needs for backpacks or school supplies. We often get large donations of school supplies, backpacks and hygiene products.
At the Orange County Department of Education, we also help supply OCTA bus passes for families. So if a school district does not have the funds to do that, we help supplement that as well for the student to make sure they have access to school.
What is the biggest challenge of your work?
I think the biggest challenge of the work is ensuring the stability of the child. Often times, we can really wrap services around and support the student. We can make sure they have transportation. We can make sure that they have educational support. But if the family keeps moving and losing housing, it makes it really difficult.
So ultimately the overall issue is the housing inventory and the housing shortage that we have in our county. That makes it more challenging for us. Because again, we can do everything we can to support the student, but if the parent doesn’t know where they’re going to be living next, getting their child to school becomes really difficult.
What should families know if they’re experiencing homelessness?
Well, first, we want to make sure that families understand that if you are homeless or you lose your housing, your child is still able to stay in their school. That would be called their “school of origin.” So that is really the main thing — we want to make sure that you’re connected and you understand that.
Then when it comes down to other resources, we do work with (the nonprofit) 2-1-1 Orange County. We also work with other support services to say, “This might be an opportunity to link families to the coordinated systems of support through housing.” We are specifically connecting them with school and then trying to connect them to community resources that they may need. Because again, every family’s going to need something different.
Are there other ways to help families in need?
Many of our school districts are going above and beyond, giving gift cards during the holidays, making sure they have meals at Thanksgiving. I’ve been very fortunate here that a lot of my colleagues are also, when they travel, they come and they bring small hygiene products when they’re staying in hotels and motels. And I give them out at our liaison meetings, and they’re so well-received. It’s one of those things that we don’t always think about, but a small little travel soap or a small little shampoo might make the difference for some people.
A lot of times, I get people calling me up and saying, “Hey, Jeanne, I have a box of this or that. Would you like them?” And I say, “Absolutely.” So I’ve never turned anything away. They always go out to our families. I’ve had gently-used stuffed animals, gently-used clothing, gently-used shoes. Socks are always a big thing that we ask for. So if anybody wants to donate anything, they can always give me a call.