“We need to be thinking about how homelessness impacts the life of a child, and there are ways in which they can be supported,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a policy analyst at ICPH. “Keeping students in one place is critical.”
Advocates for the homeless say that city agencies should open more shelters so that families can be placed closer to schools, but available resources for temporary housing in New York City are becoming increasingly scarce as the need for shelters grows. “Right now, the City has a very limited ability to keep homeless households in their home borough due to capacity issues,” said Steven Banks, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Social Services, in an emailed statement. “That’s why we are continuing to expand our homelessness prevention and permanent housing programs and are working to open more shelters across the city.”
Toya Holness, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education, said that the school system is working “to implement critical programs” to ensure student in shelters “receive an equitable and excellent education.” The department, according to Holness, is hiring teachers to work directly in 23 shelters to supplement regular schooling and adding social workers to 32 schools serving large populations of students in shelters.
Still, it’s hard for the department to offset the burden of navigating the shelter system’s bureaucratic procedures, which the IBO report highlights as another major obstacle when it comes to educating homeless children. Like most homeless families in New York City seeking refuge in temporary housing from the Department of Homeless Services, the start of Duncan’s journey into the shelter system began with a visit to a sprawling office in the Bronx called PATH, or Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing. It’s where the city’s Department of Homeless Services checks to make sure a family really needs shelter and finds them housing if they do. According to the IBO report, children need to be present at the appointment when families are making their first application for housing—or when they’re reapplying after initially being deemed ineligible.
Indeed, parents spend a lot of time simply applying for housing and making sure they can stay in shelters, often waiting long hours with their children in the PATH office before they are placed in housing. Duncan said she waited in the office for more than 12 hours with her four children before she was placed in a shelter. Her son Dayle needs constant access to medical equipment, including an oxygen bottle that she had to tote around while waiting. Duncan’s family, she said, was finally placed in a shelter after midnight. Waits like these can make it harder for families in temporary housing to get their children to school, observers say.
Under new DHS rules, school-age children won’t need to appear at the appointment if the family has applied for housing in the previous 30 days. Once a family is in temporary housing, though, other bureaucratic obstacles await. In some New York City shelters, parents said rooms are inspected in the evening, which can disrupt children’s schedules when they’re studying or keep them from sleeping.