Time to Step Up: The Educational Crisis of Homeless Students in NYC

Dr. Ralph da Costa Nunez

Over five years ago the de Blasio administration came into office determined to reduce family homelessness. The mayor implemented an ambitious affordable housing plan, pledging to create and preserve some 300,000 units in part to help house the homeless over the next 10 years. Last year, the administration spent $53 million on homelessness prevention programs with an additional $15 million to provide free legal representation in housing court to halt evictions. Furthermore, over 6,400 families were issued some form of rental assistance, primarily in the form of vouchers, to help them move from homelessness back to permanent housing at an estimated cost of over $150 million.

Yet today approximately 12,500 families and 21,000 children reside in city shelters—almost the same number as when the mayor first took office. Strikingly, what is not the same is the number of homeless students in the NYC public school sys­tem. There are over 114,000 homeless children from shelters, doubled up, or in other temporary living arrangements in city schools and another 80,000 children under the age of five waiting in the wings. The past three years alone saw a 32% increase in their numbers. These are the hidden homeless—an untold story carrying with it enormous risk and loss of human potential—for whom the simple provision of housing will never suffice.

The road to educational achievement is riddled with damaging curves and bumps for students experiencing homelessness:

  • Almost 25% transfer schools one or more times annually, often because of shelter-eligibility policies. Studies show that each episode of homelessness can result in a six­-month academic setback.
  • Many have long and exhausting commutes to school which are often nowhere near their temporary housing arrangement; some travel over two hours each way. It is no wonder that homeless students also have a chronic absenteeism rate of 36%, over 71% higher than that of housed students.
  • They face higher instances of school suspensions: in middle school their suspension rate is 61% higher than other students and 52% higher in high school. Higher suspensions mean more missed school days, pushing them further behind and placing them at a greater risk of repeating grades.
  • Their proficiency in both reading and math are signifi­cantly lower than other students. By the 8th grade, a pivotal educational year, only 20% read at grade level, a figure half that of their non-homeless peers. In math, they also perform poorly with only a 39% proficiency rate, 29% lower than other students.
  • Elementary school students repeat grades at double the rate of their housed peers so that by the time they reach high school, 24% of homeless freshmen and over 30% of homeless sophomores are repeating a grade.
  • Their high school graduation rates are no better: only 50% graduate on time, 35% are still enrolled after four years, and 15% percent drop out altogether.

Clearly, homeless students are experiencing dramatic set­backs to their education in the City’s public schools, and recent efforts by the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to confront this issue appear, thus far, to have had limited impact. More needs to be done to specifically support the educational needs of these students.

In recent years, the DOE has taken important steps to address the social and emotional needs of homeless students by plac­ing social workers in selected schools. While this is an import­ant initiative that deserves continued support, it is not meant to directly address the educational needs of these students who are often caught in a nomadic existence that contributes to their falling further behind and pushes not only them to a point of despair, but their parents and teachers alike. There is a cost to the taxpayer as well: each year roughly 3,000 homeless students repeat a grade at an annual cost of over $72 million dollars. It is not difficult to imagine the future costs associated with those who may eventually drop out of school and remain trapped in the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

The time has come to step up and think beyond a solution that is constrained by a traditional classroom setting. A ‘step up’ initiative with a tailored pedagogical approach, an accel­erated learning curriculum, and supportive tutoring and safe after-school programs would go a long way to help students overcome their educational setbacks.

Whether administered in schools with high concentrations of homeless students, or through community schools, charter schools, or even shelters, targeting these services and sup­ports directly at the needs of homeless students is an import­ant first step. Data demonstrates that for homeless students who attend schools with student-centered academic, social, and emotional support, there is virtually no difference between these students’ performance and that of their housed peers.

Rather than sitting idly by while the cumulative effects of trans­fers, absences, suspensions, repeating grades, and dropping out destroy their futures while wasting $72 million annually on grade repetition, the City must ‘step up’ and help these students catch up to grade level subject matter expectations and open the door to further academic achievement.

In a few weeks the current school year will end, but in a few short months a new one will begin. While the City of New York cannot stop the unprecedented increase in family homeless­ness, it can certainly help curtail the downward spiral expe­rienced by far too many homeless students. The time for the administration to ‘step up’ and boldly address this crisis is now.

Dr. Ralph da Costa Nunez is President of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) and Homes for the Homeless (HFH). ICPH is a New York City-based policy research organization focused on family homelessness. HFH provides transitional housing and education services directly to 430 homeless families in NYC. To learn more go to ICPHusa.org or HFHnyc.org.