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The Thomas Fire Is Worsening the Housing Crisis for Vulnerable Students

Ventura and Santa Barbara County schools must prepare to help students who have been pushed into housing instability as a result of the wildfire.
People watch from a roadside as the Thomas Fire burns in the mountains Ojai, California, on December 6th, 2017.

People watch from a roadside as the Thomas Fire burns in the mountains Ojai, California, on December 6th, 2017.

As the Thomas Fire blazes through the California coast—spanning over 230,000 acres as of Monday morning—school officials are preparing for a longer-term emergency: the displacement of vulnerable students.

The fire—one of at least five burning through Southern California—has forced evacuations on thousands of Ventura and Santa Barbara County residents, hundreds of whom will not be able to return to their homes. Thomas had destroyed more than 790 structures by Monday's count, with families relocating to various shelters located throughout the counties. While those options secure families' safety amid fires that authorities say could last for weeks, communities will continue to face a local housing crisis intensified by losses from Thomas.

"This is all temporary housing—it's the long-term haul that's going to be hard," says Joe Mendoza of the Ventura County Office of Education, where he directs educational support for special populations, including migrant families, homeless and foster students, and teenaged parents. Mendoza has been working with migrant farmworker families living in a Santa Paula trailer park community burned by the fire, making a new set of students homeless. Park residents evacuated safety to shelters that "are holding up as a Band-Aid solution," Mendoza says. "But what are we going to do in the week or month ahead? That's going to be a bigger challenge because there's no housing. We have no place to put them."

Ventura County schools had an estimated 4,202 homeless students in the 2016–17 school year, according to Laura Welbourn, who coordinates support for special populations at VCOE. Schools are often the first place where young people can be identified as struggling with housing instability and then offered support. Schools are also one of the major places where that instability shows a negative impact: The psychological pressures and resource deficits of homelessness can leave students "academically compromised" and "at risk of becoming academic casualties," as a 2011 review paper found.

Ventura and Santa Barbara County won't be able to start identifying students made homeless by Thomas until schools re-open; most county schools closed Wednesday through Friday of last week, with a few districts remaining closed until this Wednesday and Ojai schools shutting down through December 15th. Until schools are able to re-open, Welbourn says, her office has primarily been offering support through email, which can exclude families without Internet access and smartphones; Facebook has also been a "major hub" for updates, according to Welbourn.

The migrant community Mendoza is assisting lost electricity and cell phone service through the week, blocking them from air quality, evacuation, and other alerts typically sent to smartphones. To reach them, "We just have to drive over there and do home visits," he says.

Schools are obligated under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to identify homeless students and then ensure they have full access to the educational opportunities offered by their district, including transportation to the schools they attended before being displaced. VCOE officials are also preparing emotional support materials to give staff, students, and their families upon districts re-opening, based in part on resources shared by the education office in Sonoma County, where wildfires destroyed more than 5,000 homes and killed at least 23 people this October.

"That's why wildfires are so frightening—they don't just take out a house, the community is taken out too; that's often what had given children stability and support," says Thomas Demaria, a board member at the University of Southern California's National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. It takes children a while to recover from this kind of crisis, and schools should take a proactive approach by encouraging students to talk about their experiences, being flexible to their needs, and helping them move forward, according to Demaria.

"I've been doing this work for 60 years, and I can tell you honestly this is the worst disaster you've ever seen in Ventura County, as far as children and schools are concerned," Mendoza says. "My only worry is getting kids back to school as soon as possible, and then helping parents find housing and hopefully get back to some sort of normalcy—if we can."