Homeless Children Are Being Left Behind (and Left Out)

 Those aren't for a school project (hbo)

Those aren't for a school project (hbo)

A report from the NYC Independent Budget Office (IBO) was released today about homeless children in NYC and the staggering struggle they face attempting to attend school (let alone excel at school.) The numbers are heartbreaking.  New York State has an estimated 116,000 homeless school-age children, 75% of which are in NYC.  Almost 8 percent of NYC children attending DOE schools have relied on temporary housing during the time of the report (2013-2014). This number has steadily increased since the Great Recession by as much as 25%.

The city agencies responsible for handling this increase have not been able to keep up individually or collectively, causing many students to fall through the cracks of the system.  The impact of the affordable housing crisis on educational obtainment has never been starker, but it remains hidden from the politics of education.  Public education is not failing our children. We are failing public education by not solving the affordable housing crisis.

Temporary housing is a broad term defined at the federal level through the McKinney-Vento Act to signify school-aged children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.  In NYC, this term captures children living in city shelters, doubling up with friends or family in cramped housing, living on temporary motels or hotels, or waiting on the foster system to place them.  By far the largest portion of the overall homeless children population is doubling up with other friends or family (58%) while children in city shelters (34%) and in transitional foster care (8%) make up the rest of the population.

 (ibo)

(ibo)

Homelessness for a child in school hurts in three obvious ways. First, in most cases losing a home means losing a school. Although these children have a right to remain in their ‘school of origin’ their temporary housing rarely falls within their current school district.  This makes it incredibly hard for them to secure transportation to and from their school or, more commonly, it means they must attend a new school as often as they switch housing.  For many students, this means multiple moves in one school year putting them in a severe academic and social hole.

Second, not having a stable home environment puts them at a significant disadvantage compared to other students. They struggle with simple matters of having the time and a quiet place to do homework, with access to necessary resources like school supplies or even laundry services for school clothes, and with the additional burdens put on parents in the shelter system that makes it hard for them to help their children.

Third, the compounding problems of home insecurity have a potentially damaging, long-lasting impact on the child’s physical and emotional health.  These issues are as basic as not getting enough rest at night, not getting enough to eat outside of school, and not getting enough educational reinforcement from their family.  And they are as complex as not developing self-esteem, not developing social relationships with friends, teachers and their community, and not developing the basic educational skills to excel in the work force.

All of these issues lead to a staggering and entirely predictable level of absenteeism across all ages of temporarily housed students.  Two-thirds of students living in city shelters are chronically or severely absent from school, while only 27% are who have stable housing.  A generation of students isn’t just being left behind, it is being left out of basic public education.

 (ibo)

(ibo)

The report highlights the lack of coordination between the DOE and DHS as a major problem that needs addressing as well as an overall lack of funding within each agency to address absenteeism.  The complexity of jurisdiction, data collection, funding sources, and staffing requirements leaves both agencies in a permanent state of triaging, seemingly in the dark.

Within the DOE, the Students in Temporary Housing unit (STH) remains understaffed and overburdened having basically the same funding and staffing levels since 2003 even though the homeless population has increased by 25% just in the last five years.  The DOE and DHS also don’t share data, partly because, according to the report, DHS doesn’t have a clear idea of how many families are coming in and out of shelters.  This means even as the DOE has announced this year that it will spend $24m on busing students in shelters to their schools or origin, they apparently lack a reliable roster of students from the DHS to do so.

However, the report does point out that Mayor de Blasio has allotted $30 million to hire attendance specialists to coordinate between the two departments and to provide more funding for transportation and special education programs. The city’s struggles just to fund the core operations of the DOE and the DHS make any larger investment in such a relatively small part of the population unlikely.

It is clear that the city is unprepared to aid students once they reach the shelter system, so the focus should be on preventing this in the first place.  Keeping children in a stable home, in a single community, in order to attend a single school district is a simple goal with a dizzying level of complexity.  Asking teachers and social workers to solve these problems (and blaming them for failing to do so) is a morally and intellectually bankrupt exercise. 

The problem is larger than a school or a shelter.  It is a problem of vision.  If we recognize that everyone has a right to affordable housing and take the necessary policy steps to ensure this, we can relieve the pressure crushing too many New Yorkers, especially the young and poor.  Operating along the margins of block funding and transportation subsidizes misses the larger policy needs that could reshape and reduce these issues.  The money is already there, the human capital is already there, we just need the politics to organize them in a new way around a new vision of opportunity in New York.