The Plight of Homeless Children in New York City

Although this discussion will focus on the unique problems that confront homeless children in New York City, it is first important to understand the entire homeless landscape in the city.  During the past ten years, a number of factors have led to an increasing number of homeless people in New York. Three of the main reasons have been dramatically increasing rents, the reduction of Federal housing aid to the poor, and the sharp curtailment of the New York State rental assistance program. According to The Nation, as of May 2, 2017, there were 58,702 men, women and children in New York City’s homeless system. It is difficult to say whether this number is completely accurate, however, because another reputable publication indicated that on March 26, 2017 the city’s homeless system contained almost 63,000 people.

In any event, depending on either number above to paint a picture of homelessness in New York is probably unwise because nobody really knows how many homeless people exist in the city. The reason is that the numbers provided above consist of only those people in the city’s homeless shelter system. The numbers do not count homeless individuals in temporary veterans housing, domestic violence shelters, facilities operated by religious entities, shelters for runaway youth, short-term beds in the corrections system, and emergency shelters for people with HIV/AIDS. In addition the tally of homeless people also omits those individuals who are living on the street, including those I often see in the subway system, as well as those individuals seeking temporary protection in hospitals or doubled up for the short term with family or friends. Totaling all those other categories together could add another 15,000 to 20,000 people to the ranks of the homeless.

Because of the substantial size of New York City’s homeless population and the various locations that homeless individuals can be found, as noted above, it is easy to lose sight of the children who are trapped in this uncertain life. The statistics relating to children are stark. As many as 1 in 7 elementary school children in the city have been homeless at some point during their attendance at elementary school. That is equivalent to 2 or 3 children per class if those children were spread out equally throughout the city. Another way to look at that data is to recognize that 140,000 current New York City students have been homeless for at least part of their school lives. During the 2015 to 2016 school year alone, 33,000 students were in NYC homeless shelters. In fact, the total number of students in temporary housing has increased by 25 percent between the 2011 and 2016 school years.

However, these extraordinary numbers regarding children do not tell the entire story. While homelessness is difficult under any circumstances, for children it has specific repercussions that can affect a child for the remainder of his or her life. The reality is that students often find themselves in a succession of different schools as their families lose their homes, sometimes staying first with relatives or friends prior to entering the shelter system. As a result, homeless families find that getting children to school each day can be a very difficult challenge, particularly in the event that the families have moved from one part of the city to another on more than one occasion. In fact, the typical homeless child in New York City transferred schools midyear at least 2 times during elementary school. Each time a homeless family moves, a decision needs to be made as to whether to keep the children in their current school, or transfer them to the school closest to their new location. Maintaining attendance at the current school means finding new sources of transportation for the homeless children to the school, particularly if the family has moved far away from the current school. Sometimes that may not be possible, or the transportation may not be reliable. On the other hand, transferring the homeless children to a school in the new school district could mean disrupting the studies of the homeless students in the middle of a school year.

The result of this tendency for homeless students to be transferred to new schools, or having substantial transportation requirements in order to remain in current schools, is that a large percentage of homeless students are unsuccessful in school. Specifically, homeless students are more likely to drop out of school than other students, with a graduation rate of just 55% compared to 74% for students with stable housing. In addition, proficiency rates on Math and English exams for 3rd through 8th graders who are homeless is about 20 points lower than their classmates. Furthermore, homeless students are much more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services because they are sent to schools that take time to recognize their individual requirements.

To make matters worse, almost a half of homeless students were chronically absent in the 2014 school year, as demonstrated in the chart on the right. One of the main reasons for the poor attendance by homeless students is the difficulty, as noted above, that families have transporting the students to their current schools that are far away from shelters that families are required to transfer to. Unfortunately, absenteeism places students at risk of not only falling behind in class, but also having their additional support needs identified later than other students. Once they were identified as needing help, homeless students who were absent 40 or more days in Kindergarten, for example, had a 12 point higher rate of Individualized Education Program Identification compared to their homeless peers with only approximately 4 absences.

The question then arises as to why New York City is failing many of its homeless students. There are multiple causes, and it is important to understand them fully in order to ascertain the appropriate solutions. Of course, the first reason for the dismal statistics relating to the graduation rates of homeless students is the sheer size of the problem. When we realize, as noted above, that 140,000 current New York City students have been homeless for at least part of their elementary school lives, it becomes clear that the city’s civil service structure has an immense undertaking in order to provide appropriate support to homeless students and their families. This brings us to the second reason that New York is failing its students, namely the lack of adequate city personnel assisting homeless children. Although there are 32 community school districts, only a total of 10 Directors supervise the entire shelter system of the city. These Directors are supervising only 100 school-shelter specialists and 117 family assistants across 5 boroughs. Considering the tens of thousands of homeless students and their families that are in the shelter system at any given time, these few civil service employees have an almost impossible task. Spotlighting the 117 family assistants, who help homeless families navigate a plethora of problems relating to jobs, transportation, housing outside the shelter system, legal difficulties, domestic concerns and health issues, it becomes easier to see in the chart below how few personnel are helping homeless families and their children on a daily basis:


Queens 13
Bronx 40
Brooklyn 38
Manhattan 25
Staten Island 1


To make matters worse, the number of homeless students in the city are increasing. During the 2015 school year that figure reached almost 100,000, with an average of nine percent of public school children categorized as homeless that year. Examining one borough to make the staffing shortage more understandable, in Queens (as noted in the chart above) only 13 family assistants were assigned to the borough, which accounted for over 26% of the 100,000 homeless children. In Queens and the other boroughs, the 117 family assistants are inadequate to keep track of the myriad of problems facing increasing numbers of homeless children and their families.

So we have seen that the large and increasing number of homeless students, and the lack of adequate city personnel, are two of the main reasons that the city is failing its homeless students. A third reason is the complexity of the shelter system. There are 173 shelters spread over 500 addresses, since many shelters have multiple addresses. This means that those few city employees discussed above can be assigned to multiple shelter locations. Furthermore, each morning the family assistants are required to check into the specific schools that they are assigned to. This means that they need to travel extensively from those schools to some of the multiple shelters they are required to visit each day. Therefore, of course, the family assistants waste time traveling each day instead of helping students!

The fourth reason that the city is not doing an effective job assisting homeless students is confusion that arises in connection with the shelter system for a number of reasons. For example, those few city employees described above have to deal with students who are often changing from shelter to shelter with their families. With families appearing and disappearing in their districts, the family assistants have a particularly difficult time attending to the needs of homeless students. It becomes even more confusing because homeless shelters often change the populations they serve due to overcrowding and funding restraints. An example is that shelters sometimes will accept school age children one year and deny them access the next year. Confusion also occurs due to shelters opening and closing. The result is that the students are often assigned to new family assistants and new school personnel, none of whom may be as familiar with their scholastic and emotional needs.  

Turning to the fifth reason that the city is not sufficiently helping homeless students, it is important to focus closely on the family assistant system. To begin with, the starting salary of family assistants is only $13.22.  Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult to attract candidates with more advanced experience. Family assistants interviewed by the New York City Budget Office complained about their low salaries, and it seemed clear that those interviewed would seek new jobs after gaining a little experience.  The result is that many family assistants are new and without a great deal of experience. Just as importantly, union rules require that members who have lost other jobs be given preference for any vacant family assistant position. This union rule results in the hiring of family assistants who have no relevant experience or education!

Looking at the shelters housing homeless students and their families, a sixth reason that the city is letting down its homeless student population is a number of concerns in those shelters. These concerns may not seem as important as some of the issues raised above, but they can dramatically affect whether homeless students actually show up for school on a regular basis. First, there is a lack of adequate laundry facilities in many shelters. This has contributed to school absenteeism because parents have been ashamed to send their children to school in dirty clothing. Another failing in shelters is the poor condition of kitchen facilities in a number of shelters, as well as a lack of quality food. The result has been that students have been going to school hungry and without proper nutrition, and this has affected their performance in school.  Still another failing in shelters has been limited access to child care at or near shelters for younger children. Of course, this has created difficulties for families in getting the older children to school since there is nobody to watch the youngest member of the family.

In conclusion, documented above is the extraordinary size of the homeless student population, the lack of success of many of those students in the elementary school system, and some of the principal reasons that New York City is failing to ensure that those students graduate from high school. It is clear that New York needs to increase the resources made available to assist these students, both in terms of funds and relevant staffing to care for the needs of the students. Perhaps more importantly, however, the city needs to create a robust system that treats each student as an individual with separate needs so that problems faced by that individual student can be solved immediately. In other words, although each of the issues highlighted above need to be carefully addressed, only a system that is aware of a student’s entire situation, and treats the entire “patient” as in a hospital environment, can hope to improve the scholastic success of that student.