Learn4Life explores how high schools can be a better support to the unique challenges and needs of teens experiencing homelessness.



This week, 16-year-old Joey will sleep in a soft bed, take a warm shower and have a place to keep his belongings. He’ll then make his way to Learn4Life high school in San Diego where he is catching up on credits and hopes to graduate soon. For most of the past year, he has experienced homelessness…couch surfing when he could, and on the streets when he couldn’t. And Joey isn’t alone.

In the last school year, the number of California teens aged 12-17 experiencing homelessness increased nine percent or by about 16,000, totaling 187,000 kids. [1] In some regions, it’s even higher, like Fresno County that has seen an increase of 30 percent. [2] Keeping these students in school is challenging and made worse because students without secure, consistent housing are twice as likely to be suspended. 3, 4

“If a student doesn’t know where they are going to sleep at night or get a meal, they’re certainly not going to be ready to tackle algebra,” said Shellie Hanes, superintendent of Learn4Life, a network of 80+ public high schools that focus on kids who struggled at traditional schools. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of students who are experiencing homelessness – along with the traumas and mental health challenges that comes with unstable housing.”

Hanes said that in some parts of the state, Learn4Life has seen an increase of 35 percent of students experiencing housing insecurity, up from the previous year. In response, they have:

-Increased the number of school counselors and school social workers to assist students with needed services and programs in their local areas.

-Increased partnerships with local service organizations to find ways to help provide temporary housing and other resources for students.

-Certified teachers in a trauma-resilient approach to supporting students, and handling issues with dignity and respect. A trauma-resilient education model emphasizes treating symptoms of trauma or stress as opportunities to teach life skills. As such, Learn4Life’s suspension rate among homeless students is nearly non-existent, compared to the state’s average of six percent.[3]

“There are wonderful community organizations we partner with to help our students with housing, healthcare and basic needs. Our counseling team knows how to arrange motel vouchers, enroll in housing programs, arrange workforce training/employment, food, clothes, hygiene and transportation,” added Hanes.

Collaboratives like Central Valley Partners 4 Youth in Fresno hold quarterly meetings to support homeless and foster teens in the area, providing resources for shelter, education, counseling, health care and employment services. While organizations like Valley Oasis in the Antelope Valley provide housing, counseling and food resources to students and their families.

Hanes notes that an intensive focus on the needs of students experiencing homelessness, along with a personalized education all students can flourish. “We do everything we can to keep these challenged students in school. They will have a far better outcome if they receive available services and earn their diploma,” she added.

[1] https://www.the74million.org/article/ca-enrollment-does-the-increase-in-homeless-students-indicate-a-worsening-trend/

[2] https://www.the74million.org/article/ca-enrollment-does-the-increase-in-homeless-students-indicate-a-worsening-trend/

[3] https://www.chalkbeat.org/2023/9/27/23883830/homeless-suspension-rates-california/
Written By:
Ann Abajian
Antelope Valleycaprice youngCentral ValleyHigh DesertInland EmpireLos AngelesNorth CharlestonOxnardSacramentoSan DiegoSan Fernando Valleythrive global