On a weekday evening this spring, Shaquana Walston walked out of the PATH Center in the Bronx, New York City's intake office for homeless families, her three kids in tow.
They had waited hours in the office, only to be told she and her children—Skye, 10, Drachir, 12, and Devin, 15—were ineligible for shelter housing. Because she technically had a place to stay, in her mother's apartment, she was not deemed to be homeless.
Despite being homeless for 11 months and living in three different shelters, Kimetra Dantzler's kids were still attending school. But with constant disruptions, it's hard for them to focus on schoolwork, she said. Dantzler, 32, is a mother of four and has two children in the sixth grade at Promise Academy Charter School in Harlem. "They've been teased about being homeless, being in the shelter system," Dantzler said.
"I hate the fact that I have to put my kids through this," Walston said, with her children standing next to her. "I had to take my kids out of school today to come over here. Tonight I guess they'll study in the car."
New York City News Service
Walston says she and her children have moved four times in the last three years because of her trouble finding a job and being forced from home to home at the behest of relatives. "I know this is stressful on my kids," said Walston, who often shuttles her children around when looking for shelter.
The city's Department of Homeless Services (DHS) says it tries to minimize disruptions in the lives of its clients. In February, according to DHS statistics, 85 percent of families were placed in the same borough as their youngest child's school. Boroughs, however, are large. Statistics were not available on how many children were placed in shelters in the same community district—a smaller geographic area—as their school.
According to numbers posted on the DHS website, in April (the latest reported month) 8,118 children age 6 to 17 received homeless services –down from 9,699 the previous April.
"It's just incredibly difficult and stressful for kids," said Jennifer Pringle, director for the New York State Technical Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS). "There's no privacy, there's no quiet space where kids can do their homework. And then the stress the parents are under in finding permanent housing and dealing with having just lost their housing. These kinds of emotional stresses that are on families are just incredible, and I think that manifests itself in many different ways on kids."
Homeless students miss school more often, have higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and are held back more often than students with permanent housing, Pringle said. Her statement is echoed in reports and articles by educators, advocates for the homeless, and researchers.
"The biggest problem that homelessness causes for academics is that kids end up moving schools," said Dr. John Buckner, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Children's Hospital. Buckner has studied the effects of homelessness on children for more than thirty years. He said children missing school because of the complications parents face in chasing down a home is all too common.
And of course, grades and other indicators of performance suffer.
"The simple correlation between mobility and educational performance is disturbing," said Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of the N.Y.U. Institute for Social Policy. She published a paper on homelessness and education last November.
"Whether it's moving schools or moving neighborhoods, or moving neighborhoods and schools, kids who move schools do so much poorer than students who move less often," Schwartz said.
One teacher in New York City's public school system – who still works part-time and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her pension – said educating homeless students is difficult because of the simple lack of a paper trail.
"The children would move so much their records never actually caught up with them, so as a teacher I had to constantly try to figure out what each child knew," she said. "Many of these children had such spotty attendance it was nearly impossible to decide on promotion. Very often the children would be in Queens one day and next in the Bronx if an apartment was available. No thought or consideration was given to consistency in their education."
But even beyond dealing with mobility, living without permanent housing can be incredibly straining.
"They can't do the things they want to do when they come from school because we have to be over there in case people from DHS have questions for me," Walston said.
According to education specialists and child development experts, Walston's children and the thousands of other homeless kids and teenagers across the city are negatively affected in academic performance. The lack of stability is the main detriment, as children constantly moving face stress from the rigors of mobility and adapting to shelter life.
"We have to get up earlier and when we go to school we come from a shelter when everyone else is coming from home," said 12-year-old Drachir quietly.
But strong role models can help keep these students stay on top. In 2003, Buckner published a study on "resilient" homeless students, finding that many who succeeded in school had strong parental support. Students were deemed resilient based on mental health and self-regulatory skills. The numbers are low – only 29 percent of students in homelessness were considered resilient, meaning they had the emotional well-being and support systems necessary to succeed in school.
Walston's children represent both sides of the academic struggle. Her two daughters were doing well.
"She's on honor roll, we just found out today," she said, pointing to Drachir, who was in 6th grade. And Skye, then a 4th grader, is a "peer mediator."
Though 15-year-old Devin was having a harder time – he was in 8th grade and in a class for kids with learning disabilities – he too is getting support from his mom.
"I'm tired of jumping around with my kids," Walston said. "They need stability."
With reporting by Eleanor Miller