Methods: A mixed-method, embedded, multiple case study design was selected to compare between two school districts, and their four elementary and middle schools, in Southern California. Districts and schools were purposively selected based on their location and their SES. The districts shared multiple characteristics but differed based on their SES: a low–medium SES district and a high SES district were selected. This 8-month study relied on 27 interviews, 98 survey responses, 102 hours of observations, and document analysis. Quantitative data were analyzed with IBM SPSS Statistics version 21. Nvivo was utilized for organization and coding of qualitative data, including interviews, documents, and observation notes. Qualitative content analysis was conducted with an additional co-coder and inductive coding techniques were used to derive codes.
Findings: Findings yielded six major themes. Two themes highlight the differences between the districts based on their SES. Districts differed in their attitudes toward poverty, housing instability, and homelessness. The high SES district had a low poverty awareness while the low-medium SES district had high awareness. Additionally, each district’s organizational structure and demographics were found to be forces that affected the role of school for homeless students. However, the following four themes highlight shared findings: lack of identification of homeless students was prevalent across all schools and both districts regardless of their SES context; the school experience of homeless students which included isolation, bullying and victimization; the intersection between homelessness and immigration that indicated that many homeless students are also immigrants and/or undocumented; and supports for homeless students, which were evident from individual initiatives to school-level support in response to gaps in services.
Implications: This study illuminates the mechanisms behind the challenges that schools and districts face in addressing student homelessness. The findings indicate that despite the higher SES district’s ability to allocate resources to support these students, and despite the fact that individuals in the lower SES district were trained in providing services to students in need, homeless students went largely unnoticed in both contexts. Findings suggest that new identification methods are needed. These could result in support and funding that could dramatically improve the ability of schools and districts to support homeless students. Additionally, future research is required regarding the intersection between homelessness and undocumented status, especially considering that many of the homeless students in California are Latinx.