No matter how many times we read or hear that homelessness is rising in New York City, the numbers never fail to shock.
Last week, however, a report on a subset of the homeless population—schoolchildren—broke a new record for shocking news.
According to state data released by the nonprofit group Advocates for Children of New York, the number of school-age children in temporary housing topped 100,000 in 2017-2018 for the third year in a row.
It adds up to 1 in every 10 students in New York’s public school classrooms, more than at any time since records have been kept. That’s a total of 114,659 students, which is more than the population of Albany.
Some 38,000 of these students stayed in shelters in that period, with the rest doubling up with relatives while their families looked for permanent housing.
It’s no surprise that students in such unstable situations tend to struggle academically. In the 2015-16 academic year, for instance, only 12 percent of students living in shelters passed state math exams and 15 percent passed English.
The challenges of getting to school, with some students bused through two or more boroughs, also means more lateness and absences among the homeless students. In the last school year, homeless students missed an average of 30 days of school.
Unfortunately, there are no quick solutions to the problem, which is based in large part on the city’s entrenched shortage of affordable housing.
To start addressing the situation, the city has this year instituted a program of moving homeless families to shelters no farther than their youngest child’s school. It’s too early to gauge the program’s success, but it’s a positive step.
In 2016, the city also set aside $10.3 million to fund services specifically for homeless students, with the amount rising to $13.9 million last year from the city budget and another $2 million from the City Council budget.
The funding is mainly for about 70 social workers as well as more after school programs and staff to assist parents with school applications, but it does not appear to be enough to make a real dent. For instance, the money pays for about one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students.
More funding for social workers, at least, would undoubtedly help the system navigate a growing problem while helping struggling families through a difficult time. And the city should make an effort to obtain private and philanthropic funds to help.
We’d also like to see a system-wide computerized program especially designed to track students in temporary housing, so that their records are easily available to teachers and administrators and to help in preparing any individualized education plans that may be needed.
Richard A. Carranza, the New York City schools chancellor who took over last spring, told the New York Times that he was startled to find the lack of lines of support for homeless students in the country’s largest school system.
Calling the issue “deeply important” to him, the chancellor named one of his top deputies to oversee the Department of Education’s office of students in temporary housing.
These are important measures and we hope the chancellor stays on top of the situation. Randi Levine, the policy director of Advocates for Children, said, “The problem of student homelessness is not going away.”
We agree with that assessment, and hope the city urgently focuses on a solution.