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For homeless children, ‘back to school’ brings fresh challenges

Across New York City, 1.1 million children are anxious for their first day of school.  Many are thinking about who their new teachers will be, which other kids will be in their class, what they will wear on that first morning, and how much homework they will face.

For the thousands of school-aged children who are homeless, the first day of school brings a whole different level of anxiety. Those forced to live in homeless shelters, doubled up or even in hotels, face substantial barriers to a good education that can impact their future potential.

At any given time, there are more than 22,000 children living in homeless shelters in New York City.  Estimates suggest that one in seven of our public school students will have experienced homelessness at least once before reaching fifth grade.

Jennifer March, the executive director of Citizens’ Committee for Children. Photo courtesy of Citizens’ Committee for Children

Only about half of homeless families are placed in a shelter in the borough where their youngest child had been attending elementary school. About a quarter of homeless families are living in hotel rooms without access to many of life’s daily necessities such as kitchens, laundry machines, or bedrooms to call their own. Homeless children often don’t have a place to play with other kids or a quiet place to study.

Homeless students struggle with absenteeism, in part because they are placed far from their schools and transportation is often difficult to arrange. For homeless children, the logistics can make just attending school an uphill battle. The combination of high absentee rates and frequent school changes often contribute to lower graduation rates and poorer test scores.  Homelessness in and of itself causes trauma for children, and these life stressors make it harder to concentrate and learn.

But one of the best parts of a new school year is the opportunity for a fresh start — for principals, teachers, school social workers, parents, students and communities. Frankly, New Yorkers can do a lot more to help homeless children succeed in school.

This is why the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President has been leading a charge for block associations, businesses, and houses of worship to “adopt” shelters. Instead of rallying against shelters in your neighborhood, why not rally to make the lives of homeless children and their families better? Clean clothes, backpacks, notebooks, pencils and books all go a long way toward setting students up for success. Brooklyn Borough Hall is open to all those looking to lend a hand.

To ensure lasting changes beyond this school year, the City must act to improve the lives of our homeless sons and daughters. Recent recommendations from Citizens’ Committee for Children, New Destiny Housing, and Enterprise Community Partners suggest concrete steps to better address the needs of homeless schoolchildren, such as streamlining the transportation process, providing students and families with monthly MetroCards, and ensuring all families in shelter have access to family assistants to help guide them through transportation, enrollment and other educational needs. Given the proven benefits of early childhood education and early intervention programs, the city should specifically target families in shelter to help them apply for these programs.  Both in shelter and in school, the professionals working with children and their families need to be trained in trauma-informed care. Homeless families need more permanent housing options to create more stable lives for their families. And, when families move out of shelter into permanent housing, they need effective aftercare services to ensure they never become homeless again.

This is a test for all New Yorkers — one we must pass because the New Yorkers of tomorrow are depending on us. There are simple steps individuals and local organizations can take to help homeless school children in our communities, and we must collectively call on the city to support policies that lead to large-scale change.

This post was co-authored by CCC Executive Director Jennifer March and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. It originally appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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