Who Is Funding Efforts to Support the Nation’s 1 Million Homeless Students?
Inside Philanthropy – Laurie Udesky | October 11, 2023
As kids across the country are settling into the new school year, having worked through the usual mix of nerves and excitement, many of them are still struggling with the relentless challenges that come with being a student who is also homeless. Just ask 24-year-old Chynna Lloyd of Los Angeles, who recalls being a homeless fifth grader and having already bounced around to nine different schools, leaving her with little confidence and huge gaps in her education. That was the year she first connected to a tutor named Katie at the nonprofit School on Wheels. The help she received, she says, was life changing.
“She helped filled in those gaps,” Lloyd says. “She mentored me. She taught me how to advocate for myself and be resourceful.” Today, Lloyd is a college graduate, gainfully employed and engaged in training and advocacy work to help low-income youth thrive.
Her story is one of many that have drawn accolades and funding for the Ventura, California-based School on Wheels. While K-12 education and the homelessness crisis have proven challenging topics for philanthropy, in California and beyond, a set of funders have focused on the compelling work happening at the intersection of the two. School on Wheels has landed support from the Theodore J. Forstmann Charitable Trust, Every Child Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation and the Eisner Foundation. Overall, Forstmann has given $2.6 million to a handful of groups that support homeless youth, and Annenberg has given nearly $4 million total to the cause. There’s also a new collaborative philanthropic effort underway, spearheaded by the Raikes Foundation, that seeks an intersectional approach to helping young people experiencing homelessness, foster care and other disruptive forces.
In the case of School on Wheels, the nonprofit provides tutoring and mentoring to K-12 students in Southern California, wherever they are living — on the street or at its learning center on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, in cars, hotels and shelters around Southern California— serving roughly 2,000 homeless students each year, according to Executive Assistant Catherine Meek. Meek can relate to the families the organization serves; she grew up in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, with her parents and five siblings, living in one room with no heat or indoor plumbing. “So for me, it was pretty personal. And education was the key for me getting out of poverty, and all my siblings, as well.”
The students, who also receive new backpacks and school supplies, are among the nearly 172,000 homeless students enrolled in California schools, according to the most recent data, part of the more than 1 million homeless students reported by schools across the country. They face a mountain of obstacles, including learning loss, hunger, social isolation and stigma. Children of color are disproportionately affected , accounting for 65% of homeless students nationwide. Left unchecked, homelessness among children and youth is the most common risk factor for adult homelessness, according to a study in the journal Children and Youth Services Review. In fact, students who don’t complete high school or earn a G.E.D. certificate are 4.5 times more likely to be homeless as adults than their peers who are not homeless, according to a research brief by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall.
Who is supporting homeless students?
To help remove barriers to education among homeless students served by School on Wheels, some foundations have stepped in to support their work and that of other similar organizations.
The Theodore J. Forstmann Charitable Trust, for example, has given more than $1 million to School on Wheels, according to its 2020-2022 Form 990s. The New York-based trust has little in the way of a public-facing profile, but it appears to send much of its funding toward education, including for scholarships. The Eisner Foundation, whose grantmaking revolves around supporting organizations that encourage intergenerational interactions, has given School on Wheels more than $750,000 since 2013, according to the foundation’s Form 990s. The Everychild Foundation, dedicated to “easing the suffering of children” in Los Angeles, donated $250,000 to School on Wheels, according to its website. BLT Enterprises, a real estate developer with philanthropic giving areas that include children and combatting homelessness, will have given $330,000 to School on Wheels by the end of 2023, according to Vice President and Manager of Real Estate Investment Nikolette Huberman Jacob. The appeal for BLT Enterprises, says Jacob, is that School on Wheels provides skills — “a hand up, rather than a handout.”
The Annenberg Foundation, one of Los Angeles’ most prominent philanthropies, has given around $425,000 to School on Wheels over the past decade, according to its Form 990 documents. Executive Director Cinny Kennard says supporting programs like School on Wheels is in its DNA, given its focus on education. Among the many draws for the foundation, it provides an anchor for the homeless students and families it serves. “It works with parents to help develop consistent tutoring schedules for students,” Kennard says. “They’re reaching students where they are and creating stability, and consistency, which could be especially challenging when you’re homeless.”
All told, says Kennard, Annenberg has given around $3.8 million to organizations that support homeless youth and educational support, including A Safe Place for Youth, Para Los Niños, Young Women’s Freedom Center and Covenant House. The Theodore J. Forstmann Charitable Trust, too, has donated upward of $2.6 million to programs that support homeless students, including A Place Called Home, Crossover Mission and the Homeless Children’s Foundation of Indian River County in Florida, according to the Trust’s 2022 Form 990 documents.
A new collaborative effort
Beyond supporting individual programs that help students who are homeless, there’s also an effort afoot by a group of funders involved in raising awareness among the wider philanthropic world about how widespread homelessness is among students, as well as the interconnectedness of issues experienced by homeless students, and students involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
As Raikes Foundation cofounder Tricia Raikes put it in a guest column for Inside Philanthropy, “The data reveal that young people are far too likely to experience homelessness when they exit these systems.” To break down some of these silos, Raikes is helping to launch the new effort, the Fund for the Education Success of Students Experiencing Homelessness, Child Welfare, and Juvenile Justice (FES).
“I think we’ve unwittingly been pushed into a situation where we’re fighting over breadcrumbs, and if we can do some aligned work and help the advocates do more aligned work, we think that there’s going to be far better outcomes,”says Casey Trupin, the director of youth homelessness strategy at the Raikes Foundation. Other core funders in the collaborative include the Stuart Foundation and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation. Together, they invested more than $1.5 million for the special initiative prior to establishing a pooled fund of $750,000, which they hope to grow to between $1 million and $2 million, explained Trupin.
The new collaborative will seek to bring together private funders and advocates at the state and national levels who work around homelessness, foster care and juvenile justice so they can better communicate, explains Trupin. “Those three experiences share a lot of the same DNA: It’s student mobility; it’s very racialized outcomes. It’s trauma. It’sdisrupted families.”
The Raikes Foundation is no stranger to this work. In 2011, it brought together more than 100 local funders, advocates and other interested parties to develop a community plan to prevent and end youth homelessness in King County, Washington. With a $5 million combined investment from funders, their efforts resulted in new job posts to manage youth homelessness efforts in the county and strengthen data collection and referrals. Their work also generated active involvement by impacted young people in regional and statewide efforts, according to a briefing about that work.
The King County work paved the way for changes at the state level. It was in 2015 that Raikes prioritized students experiencing homelessness, joining up with the Gates Foundation to fund a Washington-based organization focused on homelessness, Building Changes, to analyze educational outcomes for students experiencing homelessness, why were often “pushed” out of classes, or whether they had experience in foster care or the juvenile justice system.
“Washington is one of a very few states that, because of advocacy, because of the data, they’ve been able to get the state to commit to getting parity around the educational outcomes of students experiencing homelessness,” says Trupin. That commitment translates to an annual investment of $4.5 million and a statewide program to help homeless students find stable housing.
For philanthropists to truly make a difference, says Trupin, they’ll have to focus on the intersection of different areas of giving. “Given the size and scale of the issue, philanthropists need to be investing in ways that leverage intersecting efforts and, most importantly, make change at the systems level. The goal is not simply to make homelessness less difficult for children, but to end it altogether.”
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