By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
New York City has many tales to tell. One is familiar — Mayor de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” —but the other is not: the Tale of Two Students, the housed and the homeless. In a city of have-a-lots and have-nots, what does it mean when some students have homes — and more than 80,000 children do not?
Of New York’s 1.1 million public school students, one in 12 are homeless. Many live doubled up with extended family or are temporarily housed in hotels or motels. But more than 23,000 live in family shelters on any given day, some remaining there for a year or longer.
Homeless children attend school in every district and every borough. If all of New York’s homeless children went on a field trip to Madison Square Garden, they’d fill it — four times over.
This difficult situation is not new. Homelessness has climbed steadily for decades, and skyrocketed in the Bloomberg era: For every five homeless families in 2008, there are eight today.
Day to day, homeless kids miss more school — nearly five full weeks of instruction every year, on average. Homeless, chronically absent students score lower on standardized tests, including state exams tied to promotion, and Regents exams, tied to high-school graduation. The damage is great, and the irony is bitter: Even as school provides a powerful vehicle out of poverty, the children who have the most to gain are also the most vulnerable.
Yet New York City persists as a glittering magnet for seekers of the American Dream, whether they’re born in the Bronx or Brazil, Bolivia or Botswana. Our leaders hold out education as the great equalizer and crucible of opportunity — but homeless children struggle with obstacles housed students do not. They bear steep consequences, in academic success and their adult futures. Homeless children are far more likely to be required to repeat a year of school as their housed peers — and nearly three times as likely to drop out.
The city (and taxpayers) pay, too: In the 2012-13 school year, more than 6,200 homeless children had to repeat a grade — at a total cost to the city of over $135,000,000.
Again and again, the children of New York hear that they are the city’s future. But for homeless students the future is less bright. The nurturing stability of school, a welcome oasis for children whose home lives are anything but, is undermined by near-constant moves: One in eight students transfer from one school to another every year. One in five transfer twice or more, making stable connections and school relationships impossible.
Mayor de Blasio has the opportunity to be a 21st century education mayor and to develop strategic approaches to stem this colossal waste of human potential. He has already shown this with his universal pre-K and afterschool initiatives. Children in shelters are children first. Their futures must be our paramount concern, because they too are the future of New York City. But without real progress, today’s homeless children risk becoming a left-back generation, the next generation of homeless families, with children of their own, failing in school and filling tomorrow’s shelters.
The city stands poised for change: The mayor’s proposal to create 80,000 new affordable-housing units and preserve another 120,000 is an enormous first step. But homeless children and their families need more than housing alone can provide.
New York has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a progressive example among the nation’s big cities. Our epidemic of homelessness is not going away, and the youngest New Yorkers pay the highest price: New York City has proportionally more homeless children than any other big American city — more than Chicago, Los Angeles, or Boston.
We know that the mayor agrees this is one statistic where New York should NOT lead the nation and instead, that our city will become a laboratory for providing homeless families with the tools, resources and supports they need to break the cycle of homelessness — and thrive.