The first day of school is a day of promise and possibility for the more than 1.1 million students in our city schools. But the one out of ten students in New York City schools who are homeless face formidable obstacles the others won’t. Since these obstacles are too often invisible to the public eye, these students want you to know what they are facing and what you can do to help them have the same opportunity to succeed in school as their peers.
I heard their stories and witnessed their intelligence and resilience when I had the honor of teaching a documentary workshop for middle and high school students who are homeless. They collaboratively produced a Know Your Rights video documentary as part of a Saturday program run by the NYC DOE Office of Students in Temporary Housing. Their goal was to inform others about their living conditions and their rights to an equitable education under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. They also sought to counter the stigma of living in shelters and show other homeless students that they are not alone. I am writing in this space to support their advocacy and further amplify their voices.
Through no fault of their own, many of these 115,000 students are chronically absent or late to school and are more likely to be suspended and fall below grade level. They come to school hungry, sleep-deprived, socially isolated, digitally disconnected, culturally stereotyped and suffering from the trauma of housing loss. They’re survivors of the massive community displacement and upheaval that has been produced by stagnant wages, hyper-gentrification and the disappearance of affordable housing. Living in shelters, motels, cars, doubled up with family or friends, or are unsheltered, their numbers have increased by 42 percent over the last five years. The shelter system’s lack of capacity to serve the record number of homeless families in their charge creates additional barriers to their success in school.
For their documentary, the students interviewed community members, Students in Temporary Housing staff, each other, and their family members. Through the process, they became empowered to advocate for their rights. They had courage to tell their stories and take their video cameras into their shelters to document their family’s conditions with the hope that we adults—teachers, principals, case workers, politicians, activists, and the general public—might listen, take notice and take action to dismantle the inequities in their housing and schooling. Their short film was presented at a Columbia University conference for school social workers.
The documentary crew reported on the problem of student lateness and exhaustion in school caused by the over two-hour-long bus rides they took each way from their shelter to school and back. They describe waking up at 5am every day to catch a 6am bus, and feeling so sleep deprived they’re “stumbling through school like a zombie” and sometimes fall asleep in class. Though the city now provides bus transportation for students in shelters, only half of homeless families are placed in shelters near the schools of their youngest child. That means the other half are not only placed far from their school of origin, but may also be far from their support network of friends, day care, parents’ job, and health providers.
There are several systemic factors leading to these students’ high rates of chronic absence. Children are forced to miss school when they are required to attend the notoriously chaotic first Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake meeting with their parents. If parents send their children to school during that time, it can jeopardize their shelter application. And only 40 percent of families with children are found eligible for shelters, so students’ school attendance is further interrupted when families that are denied shelter placement reapply and repeat the process over again.
Another factor is the lack of laundry facilities for families, even though they are required for most shelters. When parents don’t have clean clothes for their children or money to wash them, they prefer not to send them to school dirty. While some schools do provide free clothes and uniforms for students, one uniform for the week is not enough to overcome this hardship.
The student filmmakers reported on the long list of shelter rules they must comply with. Some shelters prohibit access to Wi-Fi, so students are unable to access any homework assignments or school communication that is posted on-line. The problem is further compounded by the lack of a desk or quiet non-stressful place for them to do their homework in their shelters. While local libraries do make desk space and Wi-Fi access available for students, travel to the library, shelter imposed curfews and responsibilities caring for younger siblings limit students’ after school time away from shelters.
They also said their feelings of social isolation were further worsened by shelter rules that prohibit friends or relatives from visiting them, even for birthdays or holidays. The younger children were confused why they can’t be like other children and have their friends over to play. Ostensibly established for security, especially for survivors of domestic violence, the students said the no visitation rules make them feel lonely and dehumanized. Their curfews and limited opportunities to socialize with peers reinforced their feeling of being sequestered and punished for their family’s impoverishment. Then they suffer the consequences in school when they withdraw or act out from anger, anxiety or traumatic stress, or simply want to feel free to run down the halls.
It was hard at first for the documentary team to imagine anything ever changing, but we talked about how change is always possible when we speak up and advocate for ourselves. So they ended their film with a call to action naming changes they would like to see. They said they wanted educators and social workers to be more understanding of their problems and be more informed of their rights to an equitable education. They also asked that shelters be located closer to their schools, that students with long bus rides be allowed to start school later, for curfews to be shorter, to be able to see their friends and play music, and for shelters to have library and recreational facilities. And they wanted others to know that while they may be experiencing homelessness and failure in school, that was not their identity. They each had their own strengths, skills, talents, hopes and dreams.
To level the playing field for homeless students and make lasting improvement in their educational outcomes, we need to get to the systemic root of the problem. As Jacquelyn Simone of the Coalition for the Homeless put it, “The biggest way educators can help their students is to call for more affordable housing. What the students really need is stable housing. So they can return to school, and show up in the classroom ready to learn.”
We must advocate for both affordable housing in the community and greater educational equity and social work support in schools. Housing and education are interconnected. We need to keep the pressure on Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to fund permanent affordable housing for homeless families as called for in Coalition for the Homeless House Our Future NY Campaign and strengthen and expand the City’s much needed Bridging the Gap program for more social workers in shelters and in schools as called for by Advocates for Children of New York.
Let’s make the first day of school, truly a day of promise and possibility for all our city’s students, especially the homeless. They can’t wait, and neither should we.
Steve Goodman is the founding executive director of Educational Video Center and author of “It’s Not About Grit: Trauma, Inequity and the Power of Transformative Teaching,” winner of Book of the Year Gold Award for Education.