March 4, 2018
In 2016-2017, 104,088 students in New York City schools were identified as homeless. 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 across a number of measures. 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:
These outcomes can be better understood in the context of the many barriers to school success that children in shelter face. 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 neighborhoods. Last year, only 50% of families were placed in the same borough, let alone school district, 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. When students transfer schools, they have to adjust to unfamiliar peers and teachers, new schedules and routines, different curriculums and teaching styles, and varying school environments, in addition to adjusting to a new living situation. The chronic stress or trauma that many students experiencing homelessness face must be addressed in order for them to thrive academically and socially.
Two years ago, Mayor de Blasio included $10.3 million in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget for Department of Education (DOE) support for students living in shelters. Last year, only a few months after the programs had first gotten off the ground, the Mayor omitted the $10.3 million from his Fiscal Year 2018 Preliminary Budget, but restored the funding in his Executive Budget. Among other services, the funding is currently supporting 43 “Bridging the Gap” social workers to work with students living in shelters at schools with high numbers of these students, after-school literacy programs at shelters, and enrollment assistance for families living in shelters. The Fiscal Year 2019 Preliminary Budget once again omitted Bridging the Gap and the other programming targeted for students living in shelters.
The Bridging the Gap initiative has made a difference for students living in shelters. The social workers have provided counseling to students, connected them to academic support and mental health services, and worked to combat chronic absenteeism. As one school administrator noted: “To support families, [the Bridging the Gap social worker] does whatever is necessary to get the job done! She collaborates with families, school staff, outside caseworkers, doctors, counselors, shelter school liaisons, attendance personnel – you name it! When a family [who is homeless] comes to the school, she meets with them, truly listens to their story, and does her best to empower them with resources.”
Over the past five years, the number of students in temporary housing in NYC schools has increased by 50 percent.9 During this time period, the only increase in DOE staffing targeted to serving this population was the addition of the 43 Bridging the Gap social workers.
Therefore, we were dismayed that, once again, Mayor de Blasio omitted the $10.3 million from his Fiscal Year 2019 Preliminary Budget and did not include any other new supports for students in temporary housing. During his budget briefing, when a reporter asked him about this omission in light of the record levels of homelessness, the Mayor responded that he would include funding to support students who are homeless in his Executive Budget in the spring, but that the City was still determining “what services we will give, where, how, when, [and] how much it will cost.”10
The growing number of students who are homeless is a crisis that demands significant attention and resources. High-level leadership and appropriate staffing are critical to driving and managing system-wide changes to improve attendance and educational outcomes for the growing number of students in temporary housing.