Lorena Morales wakes up her daughter, Adamaris Barbosa, at 5:30 in the morning. By 6:30, Adamaris should be on the school bus, to ride from the homeless shelter where she lives in the Bronx, New York City’s northernmost borough, to her first-grade class at Public School 188, near her old home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood.
Adamaris doesn’t like the bus ride, which can take up to two hours; neither does her mom. “Sometimes, she misses school because the bus didn’t pick her up,” Lorena explains, speaking in Spanish on a frigid Friday morning in early February, the day after a snowstorm had caused the city’s schools to close. “Sometimes, they call me very late to inform me that they’re not picking her up. Sometimes, they come to pick her up at 8:30 in the morning. That affects her.”
Lorena, now twenty-six years old, came to New York City from Mexico seven years ago. This past fall, she moved from a rented room on the Lower East Side to the Bronx shelter on 243rd Street. When she lived on the Lower East Side, she had a job in a deli—cleaning, helping the cook, a little bit of everything. She moved to a different room after her relationship with the woman in whose apartment she lived soured following an argument about money. After problems with the couple from whom she rented next, she ended up entering the shelter system.
Lorena doesn’t speak English and hasn’t obtained a work permit. With these obstacles, and needing to take care of her daughter, she hasn’t been able to find another job.
Last year, Adamaris attended kindergarten at PS 188, better known as the Island School. When the city’s Department of Homeless Services placed her and her mother in a shelter in a different borough, they had the choice of transferring to a school in the new neighborhood or staying at the same school and getting bus service. Lorena chose the latter. “I like the education here, the system of learning,” she says. “I don’t know anything in the Bronx.”
The Island School has many students in similar circumstances. Forty-three percent of its 477 elementary and middle school students live in temporary housing, according to Principal Suany Ramos. Thirty-two percent have a disability and 28 percent are English-language learners. Some of those students have a much shorter commute than Adamaris—a family homeless shelter is located just across the street. Two other shelters are within walking distance.
According to a 2016 report from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a New York City-based research organization, one out of seven students in the city’s School District 1, which includes the Island School, has been homeless at some point in the last five years.
One out of seven students in the city’s School District 1...has been homeless at some point in the last five years.
But Adamaris is also not unique in her long commute: Ramos says that many families living in shelters in different city boroughs, such as Queens and Staten Island, choose to remain enrolled at the Island School, regardless of the distance traversed daily.
In December 2016, 24,076 children slept in the city’s shelter system, according to Coalition for the Homeless, one of the nation’s oldest direct-service and advocacy organizations for homeless people. In all, there were 62,674 homeless people in the municipal shelter system at the time. Over the course of fiscal year 2016, more than 45,000 different children slept in a New York City municipal shelter.
Many more remained doubled up in shared homes, on the streets, awaiting foster care placement, or in other temporary living arrangements. During the 2015-16 school year, 105,768 students throughout the city, including those in charter schools, were identified as homeless. That’s up from 67,030 in 2009-10, an increase of 63 percent. The vast majority of students in shelters—95 percent in 2013-14—are black or Hispanic.
For this growing number of students, getting to and from school presents acute challenges. According to an October 2016 report from New York City’s Independent Budget Office, two-thirds of students living in shelters during the 2013-14 school year were either “chronically absent,” defined as attending class between 80 and 90 percent of the time, or “severely chronically absent,” meaning that they made it to school less than 80 percent of the time.
In comparison, only about 26 percent of students in permanent housing fell into one of those two categories.
On Friday morning at the Island School, a group of mothers who live with their children in shelters surrounded Lorena. They had just finished a cooking class led by Mirta Rosales, the school’s parent coordinator, where they’d learned how to make a corn and tortilla salsa. Behind them, curly letters on the wall spelled out, “It takes a village to make a great school.”
Afterward, Lorena and four other women, two with babies in strollers, one with a young son not yet old enough for school, and none conversational in English, sat down around a table to share their stories of raising children in the shelter system. At one point, one of the women stopped talking and laughed—she’d just overheard someone talking to her daughter in the adjacent room.
The sense of connection the mothers feel here can be elusive: Teachers, principals, and guidance counselors at other schools spoke of the myriad challenges families face when entering the shelter system. If a family registers at a shelter, its address is automatically updated in the school’s system. But if they move in with relatives or live somewhere outside of the shelter system, the schools may never know that anything has changed.
At the Earth School, a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade public school in Manhattan’s East Village, families fill out a questionnaire about the type of housing they’re moving to when there’s an address change. “The school uses that so we are privy to these situations because sometimes the families won’t disclose it,” explains Shirley Suares, the school’s guidance counselor. The questionnaire helps the schools ensure that the families “get the support that they’re entitled to and that they need.”
One such support is busing between shelters and schools. According to Toya Holness, deputy press secretary for New York City’s Department of Education, there are now more than 360 new bus routes that go from shelters and commercial hotels—where the Department of Homeless Services houses some families—to more than 750 schools, and back again.
“It presents a challenge of having early pick-up [times], very tired children coming here, issues with buses breaking down, or with the children getting here later than the start time,” says Suares of the busing initiative. “But some of those things are out of our hands.”
For families in temporary housing, the constant moving can make it difficult to arrange busing. Families applying for shelter housing can be assigned a conditional placement for up to ten days, during which parents make the trek to school with their kids. That introduces another variable into the equation: how parents’ schedules and those of their children, who may each attend a different school, fit together.
These challenges only multiply as homelessness increases. Jennifer Pringle, project director at the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, says that the “unprecedented” number of families currently in the shelter system has led to a low vacancy rate and made it difficult for the Department of Homeless Services to place families close to their school.
“Families are in a Catch-22 situation,” she says. “They’re placed conditionally in a commercial hotel while the city is investigating whether or not they may be eligible for shelter, but often times [they are] many hours away from the children’s school. So the family can either spend the entire day on the subway going back and forth from the hotel to the school or transfer [schools], but then the child is only going to be there for several weeks before the family is moved again.”
Essential guidelines for dealing with the needs of homeless students are provided by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. It declares, “Each state educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.”
At the end of 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which expanded on some of these protections. The act, which went into effect in October 2016, states that school districts must provide transportation for the entire school year to students moved midyear from temporary housing to permanent housing. It also requires that school districts review and revise their policies to eliminate any barriers to identifying, enrolling, and retaining homeless youth.
New York City’s Department of Education has a unit that focuses on the rights of homeless students and has “content experts” in each borough to help schools. Each school then has a liaison who receives training on McKinney-Vento and works directly with homeless students. The department also places liaisons in some of the city’s shelters. Pringle’s homeless assistance center offers training to school districts throughout the state.
For fiscal year 2017, New York City has allocated $10.3 million to support initiatives for students living in shelters and other temporary situations. “Students in temporary housing are among our most vulnerable populations and we are working across city agencies to implement critical programs and provide supports to ensure they receive an equitable and excellent education,” says Holness, from the Department of Education.
Those programs include an afterschool literacy program for elementary school students in shelters, technology training for staff, and additional health and mental health care services in schools with large populations of students in shelters.
For parents, these new programs and the aid they offer are essential, helping them deal with the stressful experience of being homeless and still seeing to it that their kids get an education.
“There are only so many hours in the day and for many parents, quite understandably, their primary focus is finding permanent housing and employment, if they don’t already have a job. Sometimes, education is third, fourth on the list,” says Pringle. “Additional supports are definitely needed, given that parents are pulled in so many different directions. And those additional supports are needed so that the kids’ educations don’t suffer as a result.”
“There are only so many hours in the day and for many parents, quite understandably, their primary focus is finding permanent housing and employment, if they don’t already have a job. Sometimes, education is third, fourth on the list.”
When Adeilyz Tosado, a twenty-four-year-old mother of daughters in kindergarten and first grade at the Island School, moved with her kids into a two-bedroom apartment in the Urban Family Center, a homeless shelter across the street from the school, she immediately noticed a change in their behavior.
Only two weeks earlier, the family had arrived from Puerto Rico, fleeing domestic violence, and the disruptions in the girls’ lives were adding up. “They changed their temperament. Everything changed for them,” Adeilyz recounts, sitting next to Lorena Morales after that Friday morning cooking class. “They didn’t want to sleep. It was really hard.”
It’s been about a year since the move and the girls have become happier, made friends, and learned a lot of English. But still, Adeilyz can see the difference, particularly in her older daughter. “Her schoolwork, her grades, everything went down,” she says.
Moving into temporary housing or a homeless shelter can be a traumatic experience for children, particularly if it uproots them from their current schools. It’s one of the reasons Lorena chose to keep her daughter, Adamaris, enrolled at the Island School, despite the two-hour commute from the Bronx. But it helps that many schools acknowledge the rupture that housing insecurity creates in a family’s life, and work to address it.
At the Bronx Academy of Letters, a public middle and high school in the South Bronx, Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez focuses on using a “restorative approach” when helping students and their families who are homeless or in temporary housing. The school resides in School District 7, where one out of every five students has experienced homelessness in the last five years.
“Every family ends up in temporary housing for different reasons. It has to be handled differently and we have to differentiate the approach,” he says. “Oftentimes, it’s a situation of domestic violence, and that’s a different protocol for support versus a student or family who’s been evicted from their home.”
“Every family ends up in temporary housing for different reasons. It has to be handled differently and we have to differentiate the approach."
In the past, Cardet-Hernandez has arranged for students to come to school early to use the locker room showers and made sure they had access to toothpaste and deodorant. “It’s about navigating this unknown space and doing it in a way that feels safe,” he says. “Sometimes, we just make sure that despite this new challenge, they have some of the smaller markers of what it means to show up every day and feel good.”
Some needs of a family in a housing crisis are basic: shelter, food, and help finding work. But schools and nonprofit groups go beyond that to provide homeless students with assistance and connections to other children in similar situations.
One creative approach is underway at the Flatlands Family Residence, a family homeless shelter in Brooklyn’s Flatlands neighborhood. Coalition for the Homeless, the direct service and advocacy group, runs its Bound for Success program out of the shelter. Five afternoons a week, about twenty-five children from ages six to thirteen can find a safe place in their shelter to get help with homework and participate in activities with other kids in similar circumstances.
For Angie Caraballo, the program’s director, the shame that most of the children feel about staying in a shelter is obvious. “It comes up often just in casual conversation, with the kids saying they don’t want to be labeled as ‘shelter kids.’ There’s always that feeling of, you know, ‘I can’t bring my friends over,’ ” she relates. “They all go off to different schools and they hide it, but they know that they can be transparent with each other because we’re all in the same situation.”
Suany Ramos, the principal from the Island School, knows that her school is often a family’s main connection to New York City as well as its best resource. Her students’ families rely on the school for everything from English classes and résumé-writing workshops to lessons in sewing and making mugs.
But perhaps the most important skill of all is teaching them to speak out about their experience living in shelters. As Ramos puts it, “You left your home. You left your safe haven, everything that you have, to come to this unsafe place. Now, how do you feel?”