April 29, 2019

Why Keeping Children in School Can End Homelessness

Keeping children in their homes and in school is about far more than preventing their homelessness today. It’s about securing their well-being and preventing their homelessness into the future.

Here are a few numbers to consider.

There are 22,000 children living in NYC’s homeless shelters right now.

All NYC families faced with the trauma of homelessness, regardless of their home borough or neighborhood, must trek to the Bronx to the city’s only intake center for families in need of shelter. From here, they may be placed in a shelter in any one of the five boroughs, which means many children are displaced not just from the safety of home, but from the security and familiarity of their neighbors, friends, family, communities, and schools. 

The once simple task of getting to school can become an impossible commute of several hours and subway or bus transfers. In 2018, the City attempted to remedy this problem by creating a shelter transfer process that ensure that more children experiencing homelessness are placed in shelters in their home boroughs. Even so, many students still miss days and weeks of school before the shelter transfer process is complete, and at least one-quarter continue to be placed in shelter one or more boroughs away from their home school.

On average, students living in shelters miss 20 or more days of school every year.

In SY16, one-in-five students living in shelter transferred schools mid-year, which is four times the transfer rate of permanently housed students. For elementary school students in particular, the rates are staggering: 40 percent of elementary school students living in shelters were chronically absent from school and/or experienced mid-year transfers.

Only one-in-five students experiencing homelessness demonstrates proficiency on state-wide Math and English Language Arts tests.

In comparison, roughly 3 out of 4, or 70 percent of permanently housed students achieve proficiency. A principal of a school in Brooklyn, where close to half of the students are or have been without a home, described the issue this way: “We have a lot of children who have been shuffled around. It’s constantly back and forth from school to school like a ping-pong. When you get a child who has been in three or four different schools, and they’re eight years old, it’s difficult to adequately educate (them)…, because you’re constantly playing catch-up.” The effects are lasting. Children who have experienced homelessness continue to perform as poorly in exams even after they are rehoused and are more likely to drop out of school over time. They subsequently miss out on employment opportunities and are at an increased risk of adult homelessness, starting the cycle all over again.

These numbers, taken in aggregate, are something of a math proficiency test for the rest of us. If we can recognize that children are already the largest segment of the population of people experiencing homelessness, and that homelessness means missing school which puts them and their children at increased risk of homelessness, then we know that the cost of keeping the current course is the cost of multiplying homelessness into the future.

Investing in prevention—that is, keeping children who are on the verge of, or currently experiencing, homelessness in a stable, supportive school – moves us all closer to a future without homelessness. The best way to do that is undisputed: increasing the city’s supply of affordable housing so that the percentage of New Yorkers who live below 200% of poverty can afford their own homes. Allocating 10 percent of the City’s Housing New York plan, as called for by the House Our Future NY campaign would help in this effort. In the meantime, to better meet the need of families who need shelter tonight and tomorrow, we need to make sure shelters are located in the communities that need them.