Students sit in a classroom on the first day of school at Claremont Middle School. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

The number of homeless students attending Oakland Unified schools grew nearly 70% over the last three years—up to 1,780 students in 2023—a significant increase over years prior to the pandemic, when the number hovered around 1,000.

Several factors—including Bay Area housing costs, a growing number of unaccompanied immigrant children, and changes in how the district collects housing data—are responsible for the increase, according to Trish Anderson who runs the McKinney-Vento office at OUSD, which provides resources to unhoused students. 

During the pandemic, many OUSD families who were living “doubled” or “tripled” up in a home with other families or elderly relatives left their living quarters during the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID, she said.

“That put extra strain on the shelter system because now these families needed to go into shelters,” Anderson told The Oaklandside. “The shelters were struggling to control COVID outbreaks, and all the shelters became impacted.”

Although the COVID-19 eviction moratorium didn’t expire in Oakland until this summer, some families that lost jobs during the pandemic left their rental units before they realized an eviction ban was in place, she added. 

“We had a number of families who left housing because they thought they’d be kicked out. They just didn’t have the money to keep up with the rent,” Anderson said. 

An increase in students coming from Central America and other countries has also added to the number of unhoused students in the district, said Anderson. During the 2022-2023 school year, 844 students were newcomers, or students who have been in the U.S. for less than three years and speak a language other than English. Three-quarters of newcomer students who were housing insecure were children who migrated to the U.S. unaccompanied by an adult guardian, according to district data.

OUSD and other public school districts use a broader definition of homelessness than the city of Oakland or Alameda County, which use a federal definition established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Anderson. The McKinney-Vento Act—the law for which Anderson’s office is named and which OUSD uses to classify unhoused students—defines homelessness as lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime housing.” That means that children living in hotels or motels, or in a home shared with other people without enough beds for everyone, are considered homeless in OUSD. 

A change in how the district collects student housing data may also have contributed to the increase. In previous years, families would self-identify as housing insecure and would seek out Anderson’s office on their own. But in 2020, California’s Department of Education introduced a housing questionnaire for local school districts to add to their enrollment packets, which includes questions about students’ living situations. The survey has allowed OUSD to identify more housing-insecure families.

But what’s clear, said Anderson, is that most of the district’s unhoused families simply don’t make enough money to afford to live here. Often, she said, the housing solution that works best is simply to leave the Bay Area. 

“My families who have been successful (finding housing), I’ve had to relocate. In the future, I think we’re going to see a lot of families leaving the Bay Area to find affordable housing,” she said. “That doesn’t bode well for the district’s enrollment, but at the same time, do you want to keep enrollment up versus helping a family find housing? That’s where we are.”

While the McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to enroll homeless students even if they can’t provide an address, Anderson said that the law doesn’t require OUSD to provide or place families in housing. But her office does what it can to help with housing resources. 

Student homelessness received attention during the 2023 teachers’ strike in May when the Oakland Education Association demanded to negotiate over a set of “common good” items, which included more district support and advocacy around housing. The district and union eventually came to an agreement to advocate for more Section 8 federal housing vouchers for families, and to collaborate on finding school district properties that can be turned into housing for homeless students. 

During the three school years from 2018 to 2021, the number of homeless students in OUSD rose from 1,001 to 1,056, according to district data. That number jumped to 1,461 during the 2021-2022 school year and to 1,780 by the end of last school year. 

Statewide, the number of unhoused children enrolled in public schools also increased during the 2022-2023 school year, but unlike at OUSD, this followed three consecutive years of decline, according to data collected by the California Department of Education.

If the numbers continue to rise, which some fear will happen with the recent lifting of COVID eviction moratoriums, more will be required from the district’s McKinney-Vento office and school sites to support those students. Anderson’s office currently includes herself, three case managers, and a recently hired academic counselor.

With the state offering more funding for community schools, which are campuses that provide wraparound services in addition to educating students, Anderson is hopeful that school sites will be able to increase their capacity for homelessness services to complement the work she and her team are doing through the district. 

“We want to remove any barriers for a child to access an education,” Anderson said. “If they need school supplies, glasses to read, toiletries, shoes, if the family is moving around all the time and they need to replace the birth certificate, we support the family in finding those resources.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.