30,000 Children Are Living in NYC Shelters: 'The System Is Beyond the Breaking Point'

As the rate of homelessness in New York City has reached a record high, with around 60,000 people living in shelters, the effects on the 30,000 children in the system are devastating. Students often move multiple times on short notice, and because the system is so stretched, they’re housed farther from their “school of origin,” which increases commute time and makes them late to class.

They also face emotional trauma: Some 60 percent of the homeless students were either “chronically absent” or “severely chronically absent,” according to a report released Tuesday by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The report focuses on students living in shelters and uses data from the 2013–14 school year.

Liza Pappas, the author of the report, tells the Voice, “the system is beyond a breaking point.”

There are 117 “family assistants” in the Temporary Housing program run by the education department for the 30,000 school-age children in 200 DHS-funded shelters in the city. That’s 1 caseworker per 256 children.

“This isn’t a surprise,” says Randi Levine, an early-childhood expert at Advocates for Children of New York City. “The report confirms the data that we’ve seen over recent years that students who are homeless have poor rates of attendance at schools and poor school outcomes.”

The report describes the numbing bureaucracy the children live with. There are room inspections, for which parents must be present, and these can occur at night, which keeps children awake late. The report also makes note of “death by appointment,” describing all the red tape parents must negotiate to apply for benefits, which eats up much of their days and makes it hard for them to pick up or drop off children at school. “In those instances families could opt not to send their children to school,” the report says.

The vastness of the city adds to the problem. “Time spent commuting to and from school at the expense of being able to be present in school or to do homework resulted in cumulative disadvantages for students living in shelters,” the report states. “Students who come late to school miss out on more instructional time and fall further behind educationally.”

In the report, the mother of an elementary school student said all the travel time to and from school meant her daughter didn’t have time for homework.

“It’s kind of hard for her to be moving over and over and over,” says the parent. “That’s why I tried to keep this school as stable as possible. ...'Cause I mean sometimes by the time we finish traveling, I’m not going to force her to sit up and do homework.”

“Right now the shelter system is as full as it’s ever been and it makes it very difficult for the city to operate, and as a result we see families placed very far from their schools,” says Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney of the Homeless Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

A DOE spokesperson says some steps are being taken to address the issue.

“Homeless students are among our most vulnerable populations, and we are hiring attendance teachers to work directly in 23 shelters, adding social workers to 32 schools serving large populations of students in shelter, and building school-based health clinics to ensure they have the resources needed to achieve and excel in the classroom and beyond,” the spokesperson says.

But the real solution, as Goldfein points out, is to end homelessness in the first place.

“The number one thing that people need is a permanent home,” he says. “The governor has been sitting on billions of dollars of housing aid that the city needs to have for housing."

In his State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to invest in supportive housing units, but he only recently advanced a Memorandum of Understanding to release $2 billion in funding for the creation of affordable housing units. Nearly $20 billion for new housing units was included in this year's state budget.

"The lion’s share of responsibility falls on the governor to move families into permanent housing. If we can get people settled into permanent housing again, all those problems could go away," Goldfein says.

We've reached out to Cuomo's office for comment and will update if we receive a response.

UPDATE: Cuomo's office responded with the following:

You'll see that this year's Budget appropriated the full $2 billion. Further, the Governor directed that the Budget Director sign the memorandum of understanding to release the funding to advance the creation of more than 100,000 units of affordable and supportive housing over the next five years. The executed agreement is now before the New York State Senate and Assembly for action.

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