To The Editor:
For the first time, there are more than 100,000 homeless students in New York City’s public and charter schools. Last year the homeless student population rose 22% from the prior school year. Whether you notice them or not, homeless children attend almost every school in every district and in all our backyards. Almost one out of ten school children is homeless and one out of eight has been homeless at some point in the past five years. Some school districts have up to 18% homeless students.
We have a city full of blameless children in unstable – often unsafe — living conditions. Two-thirds of homeless children will stay that way for longer than one school year. The trauma and stress of homelessness negatively impacts children long after they re-gain a permanent address. They need support services to keep up in school, and special educational needs to be identified and addressed as early as possible. They need health care, social work interventions and other long-term investments to insure a better future as productive tax-paying New Yorkers.
Homeless children are an indicator of the explosion in family homelessness. In recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness is re-issuing its community snapshots of family homelessness to embolden New Yorkers to take a look at their backyards. You can view them at www.ICPHusa.org. Even a quick look will demonstrate that homelessness is a local issue that affects every neighborhood in New York City.
Family homelessness is a pervasive problem that is increasing at an alarming rate. Mayor de Blasio is putting resources toward addressing the problem, as had Mayor Bloomberg before him. And yet the number of families entering shelter climbs every day and the homeless student population rose by 22% amid news that the Great Recession is finally in the rear view mirror.
How can we stem the growth of family homelessness? We must re-frame the solution away from housing and toward education and employment. A typical homeless parent is a young, single mother with two children, most of whom are under the age of five. Only about half the parents have a high school diploma, and fewer than half work during the time they are in shelter. At some point they receive a rental subsidy voucher and leave with few skills for success. Is it any wonder that roughly half return to shelter?
Many publicly-funded programs are focused on getting homeless families into some sort of housing as quickly as possible. It’s a good start, but for many it is akin to giving them a fish but not teaching them to fish. Good intentions, while important, will not cure the problem.
Compassionate New Yorkers who hate to see taxpayer money wasted can understand that the children from their communities who are homeless, while invisible to most, are expensive and a loss of human and community potential. We hope ICPH’s community snapshots will be a starting point for conversation, common sense solutions, and a call for clear leadership on this issue that is, yes, right in your backyard.
Ralph da Costa Nunez, Ph.D.
President, Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness