City agencies must do more to help homeless students

Over the past few years, the number of homeless children attending New York City public schools has been growing. Numbers released this week by the state indicate that roughly 99,000 city public school children spend at least some part of the school year in temporary housing – in homeless shelters, doubled up with other families and in other impermanent living arrangements. In total, they represent over 9 percent of the city’s more than 1 million students. For these children, instability in housing may also be detrimental to their success in school.

One-third of the city’s temporarily housed school-aged children live in the city’s homeless shelter system, and they face the greatest challenges in schooling. One of the toughest obstacles they face is also the most basic: getting to school. In the 2013-14 school year, about 32 percent of students living in shelters were chronically absent – meaning they missed more than 20 days of school that year. An additional 34 percent were absent for more than 40 days.

The Independent Budget Office’s recent report, Not Reaching the Door: Homeless Students Face Many Hurdles on the Way to School, explores myriad reasons why so many students who live in shelters struggle to get to school. Several of the reasons point to the stresses on a shelter system struggling to keep pace with the demand for space.

Although the Department of Homeless Services tries to place families in the same borough as their youngest child’s school, they are increasingly unable to do so. In 2011, the agency reported successfully placing 83 percent of families based on their youngest child’s school. By 2015, that share had dropped to 53 percent. When this happens, parents are forced to choose between a longer commute and changing schools. In interviews with families that elected school stability, we routinely heard about children traveling up to two hours each way to school. Such long commutes often resulted in children getting to school late, if at all.

With the shelter system bursting beyond capacity, families often have to move from one shelter to another, which can mean a revolving door at school. In the 2013-14 school year, nearly a quarter of the students living in shelters attended two or more schools. Transience takes a toll on children. A principal from an elementary school in Brooklyn interviewed for our report expressed frustration that the shelter system could not take schooling more into account, “…we’re adults, we don’t think about what that 8-year-old goes through. So you’re asking this 8-year-old, midyear, pull up, go into a new school, meet new friends, and right before exams.”

Transience also takes a toll on schools, especially schools that disproportionately serve the population of city students who live in shelters. These schools are held to the same performance standards regardless of temporarily housed students’ gaps in attendance and moving from school to school throughout the year.

The city’s homeless services and education departments have limited staffing to address attendance challenges. The Department of Education employs just over 100 shelter-based staff to support 30,000 students living in shelters. The DOE’s family assistants find it particularly difficult to reach families placed in apartments in privately owned buildings, also known as cluster sites, and commercial hotels. And the lack of coordination between city agencies exacerbates the problems.

While it is clear that both the education and homeless services departments track attendance, it was not clear which agency is ultimately accountable for improving it. Family assistants interviewed reported on the absence of in-depth discussions about school attendance with the homeless services staff that serves the same children. Even within the education department accountability was not always clear. DOE staff at schools and shelters each saw the other as being responsible for attendance.

The de Blasio administration has taken steps in recent months to address some of these problems. Early this year, the Department of Education added more yellow bus routes to lower at least one hurdle for students placed in shelters far from their schools. The mayor has allocated $10.3 million to station attendance specialists in shelters where there are substantial numbers of children with high rates of absences from school. The funding also supports helping families with the middle school and high school application processes and adding social workers at schools to more effectively address the trauma often associated with living in shelters.

But the additional money is only for this year and the needs of families and schools are broader than what the short-term funding provides. It will take more attention and accountability from the city agencies responsible for helping homeless students overcome the unique obstacles they face in getting to school and achieving classroom success. Schools that serve large numbers of these children also need sufficient funding to provide the necessary guidance and support.

Liza Pappas is an education policy analyst for the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York.