Friday, November 16, 2018
What does homelessness mean to the students who experience it?
1.3 million. That’s roughly the population of the entire city of San Diego or all the people in the state of Maine. Now imagine each of those faces belonged to a child in a classroom across America. All of those children are facing student homelessness.
ICPH talked with Julio, who lived in a family shelter in the Bronx during middle school, and Chris Caruso, Senior Executive Director of the Office of Community Schools, who works on behalf of the 105,000 homeless students in New York City Public Schools. We thought what they have to say would be a fitting end to our week-long series of tools, resources, and information marking the 2018 National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week.
Our main takeaway is that creating supportive connections for homeless students through access to programs is critical. Here are some excerpts from our chats:
Julio: If not for the people helping me, my life would have gone different. (He pointed to all those individuals who had a positive impact on him during and after the years his family was homeless—from his mom and school principal to his afterschool teachers and camp counselors). I’d still be shy to this point. I wouldn’t feel like I’m helping out as much. I wouldn’t be doing half the stuff I’m doing now. When it comes to homelessness, you start acting a little bit different because you are a little bit uncomfortable. You start feeling more awkward.
Chris: The majority of students in temporary housing live in “doubled-up” situations. On any given night, approximately 15,000 of ~105,000 students in NYC temporary housing are in a Department of Homeless Services shelter. The challenges they face are complex and span education, housing, and social services. Some specific challenges include transportation to school, especially after a change in residence. Also, for children living in hotels, the ability to cook and prepare food can often be a challenge.
Julio attended a sleepaway summer camp for kids experiencing homelessness. He was invited to become a Teen Leader, a select group of former campers who took part in a training program to mentor younger campers, assist camp counselors, and build leadership skills.
Julio: At camp, I saw kids who were shy because they just got into a shelter or had never been (separated) from family. I made sure they had friends or knew that someone was here for them, that they were not alone. In a few days, they made friends. They would have been even more shy and trapped without camp.
For me, personally, it taught me about being comfortable with people, understanding people, what they were going through. It taught me about different perspectives and emotions when it comes to kids. I was more open and reliable at school and during the school year (because of this experience).
Chris: It’s critical that all students have access to the same social emotional learning and academic activities. Equity is about making sure that all students get what they need to succeed, and we’ve got work to do when it comes to students in temporary housing. We’re focused on this through increased funding, better support for school- and shelter-based staff, and resources like food pantries and health clinics in community schools.
At the elementary school level, we offer the Afterschool Reading Club in shelters; this program started in 2016, and we doubled the number of sites this year. Our newly announced STH Community Coordinators will ensure that students are connected to existing resources such as college access programs, summer learning, and tutoring.
Julio: Being at camp, the counselors, the environment, nature, all made me love animals. (That exposure) made me want to be a veterinarian. I’d go around finding animals…a garter snake, toad, fish, turtles…so many different animals…made me love them a lot. I liked The Nature Cabin (a cabin with books and hands-on resources, including animals) …holding them, taking care of them every day but letting them out at the end of the day. (The counselors) let me take care of the animals. Before the camp would wake up, I’d collect the worms and the toads. It was a nice responsibility. I’d never really had an animal to take care of before, but this made me appreciate animals and love them…
Julio, 18, is now living in permanent housing with his mom and two pet turtles. He is a high school senior applying to colleges, where he plans to study veterinary medicine. Julio believes that the experience of homelessness always stays with you. That’s why he continues to give back to the community that helped him by serving as a junior counselor at his beloved camp and shares his experiences with parents and other kids who may be going through similar experiences.
Chris and the Office of Community Schools are committed to better aligning supports and resources across the social services and education sectors to deliver the supportive community connections that make a difference to homeless students.