Educating the Growing Population of Homeless Children

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June 6, 2016, New York Times

Elizabeth Harris’s New York Times article, “Where Nearly Half of Pupils Are Homeless, School Aims to Be Teacher, Therapist, Even Santa” shared the front page with the article, “Panama Papers Show How Rich United States Clients Hid Millions Abroad.” While the United States loses between $40 billion and $70 billion a year in unpaid taxes on offshore holdings, the U.S. has the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania. Should the U.S. ever retrieve some of these potential tax dollars, homeless children and their teachers could put the money to good use.

Writer Elizabeth Harris brings us face-to-face with the students, families, teachers, and principal at Public School 188. This K–8 school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is “surrounded on all sides by a fortress of public housing” and a homeless shelter across the street. P.S. 188 is a sanctuary for its students. While standardized test scores are predictably disheartening, surveys indicate that the students feel safe and the teachers, parents, and principal trust and respect each other.

“Success is how much we have done for the family, not just for the child,” said Suany Ramos, the school’s principal.

According to the American Institutes for Research, an estimated 2.5 million children (one in 30) experience homelessness in America each year. P.S. 188 students and the other 82,514 children residing in city shelters or some other makeshift living situation are vulnerable to any number of threats such as hunger, severe and chronic health problems, less access to medical and dental care, depression, and violence. As described in the Atlantic last year, “If a hypothetical classroom of 30 children were based on current demographics in the United States…seven would live in poverty, 11 would be non-white, six wouldn’t speak English as a first language, six wouldn’t be reared by their biological parents, one would be homeless, and six would be victims of abuse.”

NPQ has reported many times through the years on education, homeless children, and inequality. Our October 2014 article “Child Homelessness Spikes while High-End Homes Sit Vacant in NYC” referenced reports showing that while homelessness rose among New York’s public school children by 63 percent in the preceding five years, there were swaths of ultra-luxury apartments owned by foreigners going vacant and depriving the city of potential income tax dollars. In the time it takes a P.S. 188 student to go from first to second grade, assuming she stays, her city’s skyline will be reborn with new luxury apartment and office towers. Countless miles of new bike lanes will pass through upgraded parks. While her physical and safety needs go wanting, let alone any hope of achieving Maslow’s esteem and self-actualization needs, the city’s elites grow ever more creative in meeting their wants.

A time of reckoning may be at hand. The McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program and Title I Part A provide students experiencing homelessness with protections and services. However, there has not been a requirement for states and local school districts to report statistics for students who are experiencing homelessness. This will change soon with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which will require states to report disaggregated achievement data for homeless youth. As the city continues to reorder itself around the whims of the wealthy, perhaps this new data will inspire more understanding and empathy for those with the power and means to restore opportunity for these students and their families.

Carl Jung once remarked, “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” The teachers and administrators at P.S. 188 are sunlight for their distressed students.

Elizabeth Harris ends her inspiring and heartbreaking article this way:

But as hard as many of the teachers and administrators try to reach students and their parents, the moment they break through, the family might be gone.

“My caseload revolves quite a bit,” said Eddy Polanco, a guidance counselor for the elementary students. “As much as we hate to see them go, often when they leave, it’s because they’ve found an apartment. So we’re happy for them.”

Chronic homelessness in the midst of New York City’s luxury and plenty is an intolerable paradox, especially when the fate of children’s education and their futures are at risk. Will the powers of New York City have the imagination to find the resources and strategies required to meet the vital needs of the growing population of homeless children? Or will this crisis continue to only shine a glaring light on the widening deficits of their warmth and vision?—Jim Schaffer