Absenteeism Among Homeless Students: Where Housing and School Instability Meet

Regular school attendance is a recurring challenge for the 105,000 homeless students in New York City Public Schools. During the 2016–17 school year, 36%, or approximately 36,000, of these students were chronically absent, missing more than 10% of the year, or over three weeks of school. Close to 13,000 students (around 13% of all homeless students) missed 40 days or more of school—the equivalent of one day out of every week of the school year.

Losing weeks and even months’ worth of learning places these chronically absent students at heightened risk of permanently falling behind and even failing to graduate from school on time. In fact, only 5% of homeless students who missed 40 days or more performed at grade level on their state math assessment, and only 20% were able to graduate on time.

Why Do Homeless Students Miss School?

Experiencing homelessness is not always a direct cause of a student’s absenteeism.  Nonetheless, housing instability does contribute to a student’s inability to attend class regularly. Among the reasons why students experiencing homelessness may miss school are long or unpredictable commutes, family caretaking responsibilities, a lack of sleep due to volatile housing arrangements, and chronic physical and mental health issues such as asthma or depression.

Furthermore, student absenteeism is often not isolated to a single school year, but part of a recurring pattern of school instability. For example, among homeless students living in shelter, approximately half of those who missed 40 or more days of school during the 2016–17 school year had also done so the previous year.

Students living in shelters (i.e. Tier II facilities, cluster site apartments, or hotels) are more likely to miss school compared to homeless students living “doubled-up,” who are staying in temporary living situations with another household. Over 20% of students in shelter missed 40 or more days of class time, compared to just 7% of homeless students living doubled up.

Efforts to monitor and support students’ attendance can vary depending on the type of shelter families are placed in. Sixty percent of homeless families live in Tier II shelters; these facilities are regularly assigned DOE staff who check daily attendance and meet with parents and facility staff to address barriers to impeding regular school attendance.  The 40% of homeless families that live in cluster-site apartments and hotel/motels do not often have these resources as readily available.

Absenteeism rates tend to increase in higher grade levels as these students are often responsible for getting themselves to school. Among students living in shelter, 40% of ninth graders missed 40 or more days of school. Furthermore, for these older students a school’s environment may exacerbate absenteeism: over one in four New York City high school students experiencing homelessness (26%) reported being bullied at school, and 22% reported skipping school because they felt unsafe.

What is the City Doing to Help Homeless Students?

Efforts to address absenteeism among homeless students have fallen short in the past, though recent initiatives suggest that the City has recommitted itself to solving the issue. A 2018 audit by the New York City Comptroller’s Office found that existing procedures for communication between shelters, schools, and the parents of an absent student were often not followed due to the overwhelming caseload faced by both school- and shelter-based staff. According to the report, the lack of documented follow-ups with parents was particularly problematic for homeless students who transferred to a new school, where staff would be unaware of a student’s past absenteeism.

To address the issue of absenteeism among homeless students, the City has adopted a two-pronged approach of expanding staff capacity and increasing data-sharing capabilities to monitor students. The City is currently expanding its Bridging the Gap program, which places social workers in schools with large numbers of homeless students. Among other responsibilities, these social workers work closely with both the NYC Department of Homeless Services’ shelter-based Family Assistants and the NYC Department of Education’s Students in Temporary Housing Coordinators to design targeted interventions to support attendance among chronically absent homeless students. Alongside this expansion, the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity recently announced a new multiagency initiative targeted at improving school attendance rates for students living in 25 shelters across the city that will consolidate DHS and DOE data into a single resource and allow for improved case management.

While the data reveal that chronic absenteeism is most dire for students living in shelter, all students experiencing homelessness need access to support when attending school regularly becomes an issue. Although increased staffing and better data-sharing between schools and shelters are undoubtedly steps in the right direction, stakeholders must also work together to address the reasons why homeless students are absent in the first place. Using data-driven interventions that confront issues that disproportionately affect homeless students, such as school safety or physical and mental health issues, can help reduce absenteeism before a student’s education is negatively impacted. Housing instability can create many barriers for students, but everyone can agree that regular school attendance is the necessary first step that allows homeless students to not only complete their education, but thrive in their learning and pursue future goals.