Number of Homeless Public School Students Tops 101,000 in New York City

Advocates for Children of New York just reported that “more than 101,000 New York City students experienced homelessness in 2020-21.” The NYC public schools serve over a million students, and the number of homeless students is, once again this year, approximately 10 percent of the district’s student population. “Last year marked the sixth consecutive school year that more than 100,000 New York City students experienced homelessness.”

Advocates for Children describes homeless students’ living conditions in New York City: “Last year, as the pandemic raged and most students continued to learn remotely, nearly 28,000 of them did so while living in New York City’s shelters, and approximately 65,000 lived ‘doubled-up’ with friends or family, staying temporarily with others in overcrowded housing.  An additional 3,860 students were unsheltered last year, living in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings. While the total number of students identified as homeless was 9% lower than in 2019-20, some of this decline is likely attributable to the drop in overall public school enrollment (3.3%),  as well as the difficulty schools experienced identifying students whose housing situation changed while they were learning remotely.”

It is hard for most of us to grasp the challenges for a school district struggling to serve such a large group of students experiencing poverty and homelessness.  As we consider the logistical issues, we can better grasp why concentrated poverty is such an enormous barrier to student achievement.  A longer report and set of recommendations for New York City’s Mayor-Elect Eric Adams exposes the implications of student homelessness for academic engagement: “Even before the pandemic, students experiencing homelessness—85% of whom are Black or Hispanic—faced tremendous obstacles to success in school.  For example, in 2019, only 29% of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8 were reading proficiently, 20 percentage points lower than the rate for their permanently housed peers, and only 61% of students who were homeless graduated high school in four years, 18 percentage points lower than students who are permanently housed.”

Thirty-nine New York City organizations joined Advocates for Children last week to release a set of recommendations for improving coordination of services for children and adolescents whose families are homeless.  The report begins with the recommendation that Mayor-Elect Adams should pull together an interagency initiative to manage the problem—including the City’s Department of Education, Department of Homeless Services, Human Resources Administration, Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Here is the list of recommendations that follow:

  • “Improve school attendance… During the pandemic, students in shelter had strikingly low attendance, significantly lower than any other group of students…
  • “Increase shelter placements closer to where children attend school. The City places more than 40% of families in a shelter in a different borough from their child’s school. This practice leads to long commutes, unnecessary school transfers, school absences, and barriers to participation in after-school and sports activities…
  • “Revamp city, shelter, and social service agency protocols and policies to take into account the educational needs of children… The average length of stay in shelter spans two school years… The City should… revisit policies that have a harmful impact on children. For example, the lengthy and burdensome shelter eligibility process that can take weeks to complete often results in children missing school and experiencing added instability and trauma…
  • “Bridge the digital divide. During the pandemic, many students in shelter could not access remote learning because their shelters did not have Wi-Fi or sufficient cellular reception for the iPads provided by the Department of Education…. While the City finally installed WiFi in family shelters, the City will need to maintain connectivity and ensure it is sufficient for students to participate in online learning….
  • “Improve access to academic and social-emotional support… For example, as the Department of Education develops plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funding for supplemental programming, the City must prioritize students who are homeless….
  • “Increase access to early childhood education and services… The City should work to increase enrollment among children who are homeless in early childhood education programs, including 3-K, Pre-K, EarlyLearn, Head Start, and preschool special education programs…
  • “Improve access to special education services… Thirty percent of students in shelter have Individualized Education Programs entitling them to special education services…. But research shows that NYC students who are homeless receive IEPs later than permanently housed students, missing out on services during the early years….
  • “Improve language access for families and supports for English Language Learners… The City should ensure that families who are homeless receive school-related documents and information in their primary language and have access to translation and interpretation… (and) ensure that English Language Learners who are homeless get the language instruction and the support they have the right to receive…
  • “Expand opportunities for students who are homeless to participate in after-school and summer programs…  Many students who are homeless attend schools far from where they live, but bus service is available only at the end of the school day—not following after-school programs… In addition, students who switch school mid-year may find that the after-school program at their new school or near their new temporary housing is already fully subscribed. The City should take steps to address these barriers….”

Advocates for Children and the coalition it has assembled emphasize one final recommendation as urgently important: “Ensure every shelter has staff qualified and equipped to support students’ educational needs starting by hiring 150 shelter-based Department of Education community coordinators… Currently there are 117 Department of Education Family Assistants assigned to help families in shelter, a number that has not grown over the past decade even though the number of school-aged children in shelter has increased by thousands of students, and Family Assistants must divide their time between multiple shelter sites. The Family Assistant title is a very low-paying position ($28,000 for 10 months), making it hard to recruit and retain staff who have the skills needed to help families navigate NYC’s complex school system.”

In the nation’s largest school district, there are no quick or easy solutions to managing the needs of 101,000 children whose families lack stable housing.

NYC Public Schools Serve 111,500 Homeless Students. What Does This Mean?

When Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, spoke in Cleveland last month, he began his address with these words that introduce one of the book’s final chapters: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can ‘be ourselves.’…  At home, we remove our masks. The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents, we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work… In languages spoken all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.  The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘home’ was often used in place of ‘mother.’  The Chinese word jia can mean both family and home. ‘Shelter’ comes from two Old English words: scield (shield) and truma (troop), together forming the image of a family gathering itself within a protective shell.” (Evicted, p. 293)

When children lack a permanent home, the upheaval in their personal lives affects their schools. Some of the details emerge in new reporting from New York City’s public schools. New York City’s 1,800 public schools serve 1.1 million students. Last week the NY TimesElizabeth Harris reported: “More than 111,500 New York City students were homeless at some point last year, whether they were staying in a shelter, in a hotel or with family and friends… The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well. Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… The (city’s education) department said that during the 2016-17 school year, homeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions….”

A report last month from Advocates for Children of New York on homelessness among the school district’s students puts the size, scope, and meaning of the challenges for children and for the school district in perspective: “If these students made up their own school district, it would be one of the thirty largest districts in the nation, with twice the number of students as the entire Boston public school system. In New York City, students in temporary housing have worse educational outcomes than their permanently housed peers…. Outcomes are particularly bleak for students living in New York City shelters—38,000 students during the 2016-2017 school year.  For example, during the 2015-2016 school year:  53% of NYC students living in shelters were absent on 20 or more school days—missing the equivalent of one month of school. Only 15% of third through eighth grade students living in shelters scored proficiently in reading. Only 12%… in math.”

Advocates for Children explains: “Homelessness can create a chaotic living environment where students are exposed to high levels of stress. In addition to the trauma of housing loss, children may have been exposed to other traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, which is now the primary driver of homelessness in New York City. Homelessness uproots children from their systems of support and care, which may include relatives, friends, teachers, service providers, medical providers, and mental health providers.  Families who are homeless must balance competing priorities including juggling multiple social services appointments and the search for permanent housing. These stressors exacerbate the challenges that children living in poverty already face. While school can serve as a key source of stability for students, the City places most families in shelters far outside their neighborhood. Last year, only 50% of families were placed in the same borough… where their youngest child had been attending school prior to the family entering shelter.  As a result, families must decide between long commutes to school and transferring schools.”

Everyone wants better services for homeless children, to reduce their trauma, reduce chronic absence and cut the number of disciplinary problems and suspensions. Coordination between the school district and the city’s enormous social service bureaucracy is chronically difficult. And the needs of homeless children compete for budget dollars with the needs of all kinds of other students. What is clear is that the magnitude and rapid growth of homelessness in NYC have complicated the district’s capacity to respond. In mid-March, the NY Times’ Elizabeth Harris reported: “After rising steadily for about five years, the number of homeless students in New York City public schools jumped up in the 2015-16 school year to the somber threshold of 100,000 students. Then it took another leap: More than 111,500 students were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year… The education department has rules and employees in place, both in schools and in shelters, to try to minimize student absences. But the comptroller’s office found that in many cases, protocols weren’t followed, seemingly because those charged with trying to keep children in schools were overwhelmed.  During the 2015-16 school year, there were 110 family assistance workers responsible for helping the 32,243 students in city shelters—giving them an average caseload of 293 children each.”

In addition to placing education staff in the shelters to help support children’s placement in and adjustment to school, staff at school provide targeted services. Harris describes some of these efforts at Frederick Douglass II middle school, which has been trying to reduce suspensions among homeless students: “Frederick Douglass II has had an additional full-time social worker since last year, and the parent coordinator has attended training on how to better support homeless families. The school has had a mental health clinic on site since the 2015-16 school year.”

This month, Richard A. Carranza replaced recently retired Carmen Farina as the new Chancellor of NYC’s public schools. Advocates for Children urges Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase staffing significantly—appointing a deputy chancellor to address the growing needs of homeless students. Advocates for Children also recommends doubling the number of school social workers and installing at least 50 new school social workers in the city’s shelters to coordinate with school staff to meet children’s needs. NYC’s Comptroller Scott Stringer adds that improvements are needed in the school district’s electronic data system to ensure that school staff can better track students who are chronically absent from school.

It is important for blogs like this one to report on the magnitude of poverty and homelessness in school districts like New York City’s. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual achievement testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The law also established sanctions—punishments—for public schools unable quickly to raise scores.  So-called failing schools were subjected to a range of turnarounds—fire the principal and teachers—close the school—charterize the school.

None of these so-called “solutions” has addressed the kind of challenge posed by massive homelessness in New York City and across America’s cities. What’s clear in New York City is that many students in the public schools face overwhelming obstacles from social conditions the schools cannot themselves control.  Extreme poverty and homeless among students, in turn, pose enormous challenges for teachers, counselors and social workers. How can our society set a universal standard of public school “success” or “failure” when schools in wealthy suburbs and schools in impoverished communities face such disparate circumstances?  Our society owes impoverished and homeless students, their families, and their schools far greater support.