By Tandy Lau
There were enough unhoused youth in New York City’s public school system to fill out the seats of two Yankee Stadiums this past academic year, finds nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York via data from the New York State Education Department. But the rough count of 104,000 NYC students experiencing homelessness is quite literally a ballpark figure.
“We know it’s a really dramatic undercount,” said VOCAL-NY Housing Campaign Coordinator Joe Loonam. “It’s a school year count, not a calendar year count and the vast majority of migrants, a ton of whom are our school-aged children, started coming [in] September and October and there’s been hundreds of thousands of evictions pending in housing court, all of which are getting processed very slowly.”
Yet the state education department’s numbers may paint the fullest picture of homelessness in New York City, says Loonam. Other counts typically fixate on populations housed by the Department of Homeless Services. But only around 27% of unhoused students in the report are living in city shelters. They’re more likely to be “doubled up” in shared, overcrowded situations due to loss of housing, economic hardship or other similar circumstances.
“There is a population that is not readily recognized, because they had a regular address not identified as a shelter,” said former Council Member and long-time educator Inez Barron. “But it’s an address of a family that is sharing their living accommodations…so we really don’t even know the full extent of children who don’t have their own permanent residence.”
Another roughly 5,500 youngsters were completely unsheltered, living in cars, parks or abandoned buildings throughout the “Big Apple.” But the tallies only account for a small sample size of the city’s homeless numbers.
“You’re not looking at their parents and you’re not looking at individual adults or adult families who are all also doing all three of those things,” adds Loonam. “This is the most holistic census we do, but it’s for a very, very small portion of the overall population and we really don’t have a sense of how many people are homeless in the city at all.”
This is the seventh straight year unhoused student counts reached six-figures. Enrollment is down this year, but the education department tallied a 3,000 increase in youngsters experiencing homelessness this year. It goes without saying housing insecurity feeds into classroom performance.
“The educational outcomes for youth in shelters are divisible,” said Jennifer Pringle, a project director at Advocates for Children of New York. “In 2020-21, students dropped out of high school more than three times the rate of their permanently housed peers. And only 60% graduated in four years compared to 82% of their permanently housed peers.”
Then there’s the issue of attendance. Roughly 64% of unhoused students are chronically absent—defined as missing 10% or more of classes. According to Pringle, that’s double the percentage of their permanently housed peers. She adds 40% of families in shelter are placed in a different borough from where their kids attend school. Before students can take algebra and geometry, their parents are often faced with the calculus of choosing between taking them to school or attending a housing appointment. Pringle, who oversees AFC’s Project LIT—a program assisting youngsters experiencing homelessness in the classroom—says her work often involves shelter transfers closer to the appropriate school.
And speaking of Yankee Stadium, school district 9—home to the world-famous ballpark—leads the city in student homelessness rates in the 2021-22 school year with 1-in-5 enrolled living in temporary shelter. The rest of the Bronx faces similar challenges as the borough easily sees the highest-estimated rates of student homelessness throughout the city. But district 24—which encompasses Queens neighborhoods in Corona, Elmhurst, Maspeth and Ridgewood—faces the largest hike, with an over 20% rise in unhoused students despite dropping enrollment numbers.
A city education department spokesperson says it employs roughly 350 staff members to support unhoused students and their families. Of those employees, there are 100 social workers who provide mental health assistance and referrals to other services. The DOE spokesperson also mentions the city is looking to fill five regional manager vacancies in support for students in temporary housing. Additionally, the department is still finishing the hiring process for 100 shelter-based school staff.
But counts will rise even higher with the influx of Central and South American migrant students entering the city’s shelter system and other temporary housing situations due to southern border state officials busing them to New York City over the past few months. This past Monday, a rally held by the New York Immigration Coalition at Tweed Courthouse by City Hall demanded further school funding for children seeking asylum. City Council Committee on Education Chair Rita Joseph said the aforementioned shelter-based school staff are needed more than ever.
“More and more we need for them to provide the support,” she said. “Hire the shelter base coordinators to help our students navigate. We can’t wait to make sure we are supporting the new New York with open arms.”
The city also announced it’s sending $2,000 to schools with six or more newly-arrived students in temporary housing. At the rally, city Comptroller Brad Lander—who arrived in his Halloween costume dressed as a video game controller—felt more needed to be done.
“If we’re going by Fair Student Funding (FSF) today, then we would be sending about $7,000 to every one of these schools for each of those students,” said Lander. “That’s what Fair Student Funding dictates and you can’t really say it’s all about fair student funding when you’re cutting our schools budgets, and then not go with what Fair Student Funding would require.”
Given the budget ossified prior to the school year and the subsequent bussing from southern border states of asylum seekers to New York City, new census data will need to be submitted to reflect the influx of newly arrived students.
Rita Rodriquez-Engberg, who directs the Immigrant Students Rights Project at Advocates for Children of New York also spoke at the rally, and told the NY Amsterdam News there was a more pronounced importance for newly arrived unhoused students to appear in counts with funding on the line. Additionally, she highlighted specific needs by older students during the rally.
“Our newly-arrived older newcomer youth—ages 16 to 21—have very specific needs and have very little time to graduate before they age out of our school system,” said Rodriquez-Engberg. “We know that there are schools in the city that are well equipped to handle this population of students. They’re called the English language learner transfer schools. However, there are only five of these schools in the city. And they are [all] in Manhattan [except] one in the Bronx.
“So imagine if you’re a youth who’s new to the country, you live in Queens, good luck, you’re not going to get there. It’s going to take you two hours from Far Rockaway to get to the one in the Bronx. And we can’t ask a 16-year-old [or] an 18-year-old [to] make that commute two times a day to be able to get an education that’s appropriate for them, that’s culturally adequate.”
Barron called the $2,000 inadequate and insulting, saying another $7-8,000 per student is needed. And bilingual teachers are also necessary, not only for the increased Spanish-speaking population but also for an influx of newly arrived Haitian students in Brooklyn. And most importantly, she says reducing the education budget was a massive mistake by Mayor Eric Adams and city council proponents.
“To do that on behalf of children [gives] them a great disservice,” said Barron. “We’ll see how they tried to correct that now with the budget mod that’s coming this month of November.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1