1 In 7 New York City Public-School Students Is Homeless

Despite promising to do everything in his power to improve the quality of life for New York City’s most economically vulnerable residents, Mayor Bill De Blasio has instead presided over one of the largest expansions in homelessness in New York City history.

Over the past two years, the population of homeless students in NYC’s public schools has exploded, increasing by 20% between the 2015-2016 school year and the 2016-2017 school year, which concluded in June. There are now more than 140,000 homeless public-school students, according to the Atlas of Student Homelessness, an annual study conducted by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. At any given time, roughly 9% of NYC public-school students are homeless. Another four percent were currently housed, but had experienced homelessness at some point since 2010-2011 school year. Furthermore, one in seven NYC students will have been homeless at least temporarily during their tenure.

According to the New York Times, which published a summary of the study's findings, the increase in homelessness since De Blasio took office has been driven by three factors: Dwindling federal aid for housing-insecure Americans, rising rents and the closure of state-run renters’ assistance programs.

“The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters, as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended. The de Blasio administration has struggled to slow the rising numbers, but with little success.”

Being homeless can have a profoundly negative impact on students’ long-term academic performance, even if they’re only homeless for a short period of time. This is because for homeless children, just getting to school each day can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

“Homelessness is difficult under any circumstances, but for children, the stress and physical dislocation can be like a tornado dropped in the school day. Students bounce from school to school as their family leaves home, perhaps staying with friends, before entering the shelter system, where they are often moved from place to place. Getting children to school each day becomes an enormous challenge, especially if families have recently moved across the city.”

Because of this, homeless elementary school students on average missed 88 days of school last year, which amounts to about half of the year. According to Anna Shaw-Amoah, the senior policy analyst at ICPH, students who “fall behind” in kindergarten or first grade often struggle for years to catch up.

“…the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled-up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in kindergarten? The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Students who live in shelters achieve proficiency on 3rd–8th grade math. Yet even after a student’s family has found permanent housing, the psychiatric effects of homelessness often linger: These students exhibit chronic absenteeism at 1.5 times the rate for students who don’t struggle with housing insecurity.

Of course, homeless student populations can vary dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from school to school.  The rate of student homelessness ranged from a low of 2.5% in Bayside, Queens to a high of 20% in the Bronx’s Highbridge/Concourse neighborhood.

“Another crucial point in the report is how homeless students are distributed among the city’s schools, with some schools and districts seeing intense concentrations, while others bear a relatively light burden. In Bayside, Queens, 823 students were homeless in the 2015-2016 school year, while in District 10 in the Bronx which includes neighborhoods like Fordham and Belmont, more than 10,000 students did not have stable place to live."

Another factor compounding the difficulties faced by homeless students is that many are English-language learners. The study found that one in every six English language learner (ELL) students was homeless in SY 2015–16. 

In summary, the data suggest that any plan to ameliorate the negative consequences of student homelessness must be individually tailored to the school and the district. The recommendations are simple: After-school programs help keep kids off the streets and under adult supervision. Providing lunches and snacks helps keep students focused on the material being learned instead of their empty stomach. Small changes like these may not put a roof over a child’s head, but they can help undo some of the psychological damage that being homeless can inflict, increasing the students' chances of making it to graduation.