The Homeless Student Population Is Exploding. Will New Focus on Performance Save Them?
Brooklyn, New York
The little apartment around the corner from the Utica Avenue subway stop wasn’t much, but it was theirs. Darius Hansome got the one bedroom, while his mother, Traci, slept in the living room.
Then gentrification arrived in their central Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, most widely known for years for the deadly riots that erupted in 1991 between the area’s African-American and Orthodox Jewish residents.
The lingering stain from that violence was swept away by new, hip coffee shops, pricey bars and a mob of white, younger residents staking claim to the freshly renovated pre-war apartments and the new luxury buildings towering over the crummy bodegas and liquor stores.
Crown Heights acquired cachet so quickly that longtime residents, like Darius and his mom, could not keep up. In the summer of 2013, their landlord emptied nearly their entire building, save for only a few tenants. Some of the renters were price-gouged, Traci said, while others were bought out.
And some, like Traci and her son, were left homeless. Traci, 38, a home health aide out of work because of a chronic medical issue, fought for months to keep their apartment, but a few weeks before Christmas, in the middle of Darius’s freshman year of high school, she lost.
Darius longs for that small apartment in Crown Heights. He had his own bedroom. He could shut the door for privacy. And he had Rōnin, the stray kitten he begged his mother to adopt.
Today, Darius has none of those things. He and his mother live in a family homeless shelter in East New York, where they hesitate to crack open a window because a thick, rancid chemical smell seeps in from nearby car detailing shops. Darius wants to become a writer, a novelist in fact, but the small studio apartment isn’t conducive to creativity, he said. It’s also not a great place to complete homework.
“It’s altered my perspective on life,” Darius said about having no place to live. “I mean, you never know what you have until it’s gone, to put that simply, and I hate to use a cliché.”
Homeless in high school
Darius has spent nearly his entire high school career living in a homeless shelter, just one young man among more than a million homeless students in the U.S., a population that’s been largely invisible in American education policy talks. But in acknowledgment of a deep vulnerability — from chronic absenteeism to staggering high school dropout rates — lawmakers are now placing a fresh emphasis on tracking and improving the outcomes of displaced students through the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Nowhere is this effort more concentrated than in New York City, where the homeless student population has exploded in the past decade to more than 80,000 and where local officials are scrambling to educate them. Yet a city study released just last week acknowledged these efforts are far too little.
Last month, Darius started his senior year at Park Slope Collegiate, a public school that he calls a “hell hole,” where the metal detectors at the front door offer “an illusion of safety.” In a matter of months, the 17-year-old, whose cynicism starts to crack when he talks about his writing or about his favorite video games, is expected to graduate and to attend college — a remarkable feat for a young man without a permanent home.
For Darius, getting this far in school wasn’t easy. The boy is “academically lazy,” his mother observes sharply, and his grades from the past school year show it. He doesn’t like school, but he knows the only way out is to finish. Helping him reach the graduation stage are a doggedly determined mother (Traci sent a younger Darius to live with relatives in Hawaii because she was so distraught over the schools in Jamaica, Queens), supportive teachers and a fraternity of Brooklyn teenagers who’ve had similar experiences whom Darius met through a city Department of Education program.
That’s more than a lot of homeless students in New York City — or many other places in the country — can claim.
The just-released report — “Not Reaching the Door: Homeless Students Face Many Hurdles on the Way to School” — from the city’s Independent Budget Office highlights the many challenges students face when they call a shelter home. Supports for students living in shelters — more than a third of all the temporarily housed students in 2013–14, the year studied — are woefully inadequate and bureaucratically entangled, the report found.
The author highlighted a lack of coordination between city housing and education agencies, inadequate school funding to combat homelessness, and a lack of trained officials to deal with student needs.
Federal law requires schools to hire liaisons to identify and help address student homelessness, but the report found that the city Department of Education was “short-staffed” to handle a population that is rapidly multiplying. The city employs 10 people who oversee 32 community districts and more than 100 shelter-based liaisons charged with making sure children get to school.
For the homeless kids who make up those overwhelming caseloads, life’s struggles are compounded.
“I think what stands out is the fact that students in temporary housing situations deal with all of these factors together,” said Liza Pappas, an education policy and budget analyst at the Independent Budget Office, who wrote the report. “So challenges going to school, the trauma of living in a homeless shelter, not having adequate resources.”
Tracking homeless students for the first time
Homelessness has a profound effect on student performance, yet schools often struggle to identify displaced students and to offer them the supports they need.
In most states, including New York, school districts aren’t required to report the graduation rates of students experiencing homelessness.
Of the five states that currently do report graduation rates for homeless youth — Colorado, Kansas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming — data show displaced students perform far below their peers, trailing even other low-income students.
The amount of services and supports available to homeless students varies widely between school districts across the country, said Erin Ingram, a co-author of a recent report by Civic Enterprises, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” which explored the barriers homeless youth face in their efforts to graduate. While some schools offer resources ranging from help in finding housing to flexible academic requirements, that’s not a universal experience.
“We also heard from some students who said, ‘You know, I told people I was homeless, and nothing was done for me,’” Ingram said.
That’s beginning to change. Starting this month, school districts across the country are being asked to do more for their homeless student population.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools are required to hire personnel who are adequately prepared to help homeless students achieve. States are required to allocate more federal money to district efforts to educate homeless children. And by next year, all states will be required to report the graduation rates of students experiencing homelessness, in the same way they do other vulnerable groups, such as the disabled and English-language learners.
Ingram hopes this new set of numbers will help educators target the students having the greatest difficulties.
“We know this is a group of kids who really need a lot of support and deserve a lot of focus,” Ingram said. “We’re really hopeful that just getting that data can give us a better sense of which kids are in need of a lot of supports.”
An endless loop
Christmas break was approaching, and Traci didn’t want Darius to miss school. So they stayed for a few weeks in the same Crown Heights apartment building with a neighbor who hadn’t been evicted — a transgender woman who was dying from HIV, the same disease that took Traci’s mother, an IV drug user, when Traci was 17.
When Darius was released from school for break, they began the process to secure shelter though the city’s Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) — a huge intake center in the Bronx that processes applications for temporary housing. Navigating the bureaucracy was hellish, Traci said.
PATH is at capacity. In September, the city reached a new record: Nearly 60,000 people found refuge in Department of Homeless Services shelters, half of them children. Since 1999, applicants have not been allowed to sleep at PATH. So instead, Traci and Darius spent their days in the center in the Bronx and, late at night, found themselves on buses to various hotels across the city. At 5:30 the next morning, they were back on the bus bound for PATH.
At one point, the Hansomes were placed temporarily in a small apartment with bunk beds at a shelter in Sheepshead Bay, a southern Brooklyn neighborhood where they could see the Atlantic Ocean. Without heat, Traci said, they could also see their breath in the air.
“They actually didn’t want to place us anywhere either,” said Traci, who grew up in public housing in Brownsville, Brooklyn, spent time in group homes after her mother died and had several run-ins with police when she was younger. “They kept telling us, ‘You can do this, you can do that.’ They actually told me at one point, ‘Oh, you have an aunt, you can go and sleep in her tub.’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
For about a month, Traci and Darius went through an “endless loop” with PATH, again and again denied a placement. Displaced children, regardless of age, are required to accompany their parents through the application process. Though winter break eased the burden, Darius had to miss several days of school when classes resumed for the spring semester. However, a new Department of Homeless Services policy intends to ease the burden on children, beginning in November. Parents will no longer have to bring their children to PATH if they reapply for housing within 30 days.
“It just seemed kind of pointless,” Darius said. “It just felt like we were just being shoved around this endless loop.”
While the process was constant and all-consuming, it was not something Darius felt comfortable discussing at school. The young man hates talking about his homelessness.
He doesn’t know any other kids in his high school who are displaced, he said, but he’s far from alone. Although homelessness in New York City is heavily concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, it affects every corner of all five boroughs. Most students who are displaced try to hide their situation at school, an impulse that’s motivated by embarrassment, shame and fear.
“They wouldn’t advertise it,” Darius said. “I don’t draw attention to it. It doesn’t matter. It’s not something you blabber about in normal conversation.”
More homeless students than Seattle, Boston combined
Though student homelessness is expected in New York City, it still remains largely an invisible epidemic because students feel the stigma and parents fear they could lose custody of their children if their status were known.
Nationally, homelessness has nearly doubled in American public schools since the 2006–07 school year, affecting more than 1.3 million students in 2013–14. Minority and LGBT students are disproportionately represented in this population. Often, people think homelessness “is something that happens somewhere else, in someone else’s neighborhood,” particularly in large cities like New York and San Francisco, Ingram said. But that’s not so.
“This is part of our national picture, particularly because we think the Great Recession pushed so many families out of their housing,” she said. “A lot of those families still have not regained stability.”
In New York City, where 1.1 million children are enrolled in public schools, one in eight students has experienced homelessness within the past five years. That’s 127,000 kids — more students than the Boston and Seattle school districts combined.
Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would spend $30 million on services to address the homeless student population, using the money to establish health centers at elementary schools, launch literacy programs in homeless shelters and hire attendance specialists and social workers. The move followed cries from critics who said his administration was doing too little.
“Students in temporary housing are among our most vulnerable populations,” Toya Holness, a city education department spokeswoman, said in a statement responding to the Independent Budget Office’s findings. “We are working across city agencies to implement these critical programs and provide supports to families to ensure students living in temporary housing receive an equitable and excellent education.”
Simply experiencing instability creates significant barriers for kids in their efforts to receive a high school diploma.
Every time a student transfers to a new school, they’re set back academically by up to six months, according to a recent report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, and homeless students in New York City transfer to new schools about three times as often as children with stable housing.
Chronic absenteeism is a key predictor of student achievement, with homeless students twice as likely to miss 20 or more days of school in a single year. In fact, roughly two thirds of students in shelters are either “chronically absent” or “severely chronically absent,” according to the Independent Budget Office. Those who were “severely” absent missed more than 80 percent of school days.
But possibly the most interesting — and distressing — finding from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness study is that even students who found a place to live and were no longer homeless performed no better than their classmates who were still displaced, said Principal Policy Analyst Jennifer Erb-Downward.
“I think the takeaway there is that there’s just an incredible amount of instability and disruption while they’re homeless,” Erb-Downward said. “The instability these kids experience really sets the stage for these lasting impacts.”
On the flip side, while all New York City homeless students are dropping out of school at twice the citywide average, those students who lived in a homeless shelter for all four years of high school had dropout rates similar to students with stable housing. Except for that first semester freshman year when he and his mom still had their Crown Heights apartment, Darius fits this group.
Going through the process to secure housing wasn’t easy, and Traci said her son’s grades did slip a little, but school officials were supportive of his situation. In fact, she credits a city education official with helping her finally secure a spot in a shelter.
“He didn’t fail anything” his freshman year, Traci said, “and that was very impressive.”
For Darius, he’s most concerned about getting a permanent place to live so he can focus on writing his first novel, a Cold War–like fable of two nations fighting for supremacy but unable to achieve it because “they are too far to attack, but too close to leave alone. It’s a stalemate.”
Like Virginia Woolf, he is in search of a room of his own.
“I cannot quite concentrate my energies completely on writing because I’m living right next to my mother,” he said. “She’s doing her thing, and whatever she’s doing, I have to hear. It’s very, very difficult, and the thing about writing, if you want to be a serious writer, you need to have a schedule and your own place. I have neither of those.”
Fencing, summer jobs and a path to college
At the end of his eighth-grade year, just months before Crown Heights’s changing demographics would start pushing them out of their home, a counselor at Darius’s school handed him a piece of paper. On it was a description of Safe in My Brother’s Arms, or SIMBA, the NYC schools program geared toward young men entering or currently experiencing homelessness. It encompasses those living in a shelter, doubling up with friends or relatives, awaiting foster care or living in a hotel.
A little reluctant at first, Darius signed up. In return, he’s completed college courses, participated in activities like fencing and archery and developed a network of teens with similar experiences. The program also connected him with summer jobs; this past summer he earned $1,200 working as a teacher’s assistant at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in Brownsville.
“Students enjoy coming to a program and playing basketball, but we also focus on programs such as fencing, graphic design and music engineering,” said Wayne Harris, an education department liaison for students in temporary housing who runs the program. “SIMBA has played a significant role in transforming the lives of many young men who may have been facing challenges but now are gainfully employed, attending college and, in some cases, responsibly involved fathers.”
Harris was the person who also helped Traci and Darius find a shelter placement after PATH, the Bronx intake center, rejected their application for about the sixth time.
“I didn’t know what else to do. What else do I do?” Traci said. “I’m going through this process over and over again, Darius is missing school, we can’t have this, and [Harris] said ‘Hold on,’ and he got me some legal aid.”
Receiving so much support from school officials isn’t a universal experience for homeless kids. Schools face a variety of factors figuring out who students identifying themselves as homeless are, according to a 2014 report from the federal Government Accountability Office. And sometimes they may not want to for financial reasons.
For one, schools often under-staff the liaisons designed to identify homeless youth. Liaisons typically spent about two hours per week addressing student homelessness, the GAO report states, because they were tasked with so many other unrelated duties. Nearly 90 percent of liaisons said they spend 50 percent or less of their time on homeless-related issues, according to the Civic Enterprises report.
Among ESSA changes is a requirement that schools must hire enough liaisons to focus on the problem and provide enough training for them to improve identification, especially in schools where homelessness may not even be on adults’ radars.
“Many schools across the country, many school staff, wouldn’t expect necessarily to have children in those situations in the classroom,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “They might not know what the definition of homelessness is, may not know what the signs are. They may miss the red flags.”