New York City has reached its highest levels of homelessness since the Great Depression. Homelessness is not only impacting families, it is also having a devastating effect on our children and their education.
The ongoing crisis of New York’s homeless youth has reached epidemic proportions with one out of every nine students in New York City public schools experiencing homelessness within the past four school years, according to data from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH). Additionally, the Coalition for the Homeless has found that as recently as October 2015 more than 23,800 children were homeless. It may be hard to imagine the effect unstable housing and living conditions can have upon children but substantial data is now available on the absenteeism rates of homeless children – and it does not paint a pretty picture.
For example, in the Bronx 42.4 percent of students experiencing homelessness were considered chronically absent in the 2013-2014 school year. In Bronx Community School District 9 – the school district that I represent in the New York State Assembly – 18 percent of the student body was homeless in the 2013-2014 school year – the highest among the New York City Department of Education’s school districts, according to data from the ICPH. Usually, homelessness leads to displacement that is not only outside of their current school district, but outside their current borough. It is no surprise that State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia identified 55 New York City schools as struggling. Our children are facing disruptive life events through homelessness that impact their development as future leaders. We must level the playing field.
For those students experiencing homelessness, chronic absenteeism, displacement, poor test scores on statewide exams and disruption of their school schedule are just some of the limitations these students will face as they pursue their education. In District 9 we see its impact as – along with being the school district with the largest number of homeless students – it is also the school district with the largest number of students who have left school after becoming homeless.
Too often, I hear from families in my district that need help; they are struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table for their children. Pursuing an agenda focused on enhancing economic justice – by taking important steps like raising the minimum wage – will help us reduce the number of homeless Bronx students. But it is not enough. We need to develop and implement educational strategies designed to limit empty seats in our schools, enhance test scores, bolster graduation rates and improve educational success for our community’s children. For those experiencing homelessness, school may not be a top concern, but children need to be present at school in order to learn. This is where New York City’s Community Schools model and other interventions can be effective catalysts for change and lead efforts to curb absenteeism and enhance academic outcomes.
A more nurturing and encouraging environment both in the classroom and at their current home will achieve substantial results, and help ensure that no seat is left empty in our schools. A clear recognition of the impact of homelessness on school performance, the development of after school programs tailored to the unique needs of homeless students, and the holistic integration of programs and resources of the New York City Department of Education, the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration are essential responses to the needs of children living with homelessness.
A family component designed to increase access to social services in order to limit the cycle of homelessness in our great city should be included. Access to programming and services can lead to success for families in transitional and shelter housing predicaments; success not only for the family, but also a sound educational footing for their children.