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  • Opinion: New York is failing students in shelter

    May 26, 2022

    05.23.2022 | NY Daily News | No child should ever have to live in a shelter — but for the thousands of New York City children who do, more support is desperately needed. 

    The pandemic has deepened housing insecurity and exacerbated race, class, and gender-based inequities for countless New York children and families. A new report from the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York found that the average length of stay for families in shelter has grown and that 94% of people in families with children who live in shelter are Black or Hispanic. 

    At a time when more than 100,000 New York City students do not have a place to call home, our city must do more to meet students experiencing homelessness where they are. 

    The city’s Department of Education can rise to the challenge. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the DOE has $33 million in federal funds designated to help students experiencing homelessness. To have the greatest impact, the DOE should use this funding to hire shelter-based community coordinators focused on meeting the needs of students in shelter and ensure that every family and student can access the resources they need to not only recover academically, but thrive. 

    The educational outcomes for students in temporary housing are dismal. Last week, Advocates for Children of New York released a new brief that found students living in shelter had an overall attendance rate of 78.9% in October 2021, almost 11 percentage points lower than the attendance rate for permanently housed students. Only 60% of students in shelters graduate high school in four years — 22 percentage points lower than the graduation rate of permanently housed students — and students living in shelters disproportionately lack access to critical supports and educational opportunities, including Summer Rising, afterschool programs, and 3-K and pre-K. 

    We desperately need more on-the-ground, shelter-based coordinators focused on tackling chronic absenteeism, supporting families and ensuring children not only get to school every day, but have the support and resources they need. Robocalls, emails or a few targeted phone calls are not enough. It is critical to have Education Department staff at the shelter with the skills to identify and proactively reach out to parents whose children are not regularly attending school, figure out the root causes and partner with parents to overcome the barriers. 

    For example, families are often placed in a shelter in a different borough from their children’s school, a transition that can be unnecessarily disruptive, but an on-the-ground coordinator could advocate for a shelter transfer closer to the children’s school. Families need in-person, one-on-one engagement with staff who are empowered to support them effectively and can address educational barriers. 

    We commend the DOE for committing to hire 50 shelter-based community coordinators as part of its initial allocation of federal funding. But more must be done to meet the urgent need. 

    Advocates for Children of New York — along with 30 stakeholder organizations — believes the school system should launch a two-year community coordinator program, including hiring 100 additional shelter-based community coordinators. By hiring 150 shelter-based coordinators for two years, the DOE could design, coordinate and implement more robust efforts to ensure students are connected to critical services. The city could also learn more about the barriers to regular attendance facing students living in shelters, chronic absenteeism, and how to build a long-term approach to end the devastating effects of student homelessness. 

    At a time when so many students living in shelter are not even making it to school consistently, the DOE also must ensure that every position in the DOE’s Students in Temporary Housing Office is filled to help bring resources directly to families. Currently, there are only 14 Students in Temporary Housing regional managers. They have an array of responsibilities — including supporting the 28,000 students in shelters plus more than 73,000 students in temporary doubled-up arrangements and other temporary housing arrangements. That’s more than 7,200 students for a single staff member. The ratio is untenable. 

    These managers do necessary work, but there are simply not enough hours in a day for so few managers to meet the needs of every student — and while the DOE approved the hiring of four additional regional managers last year, the current hiring freeze has put a halt to those plans. At a time when the DOE has an influx of federal funding to address this urgent crisis, the needs of students in shelter must be prioritized, not sacrificed to cost-cutting strategies. 

    We’re at an inflection point. The DOE must act now to hire shelter-based community coordinators and fill all vacant positions in its Students in Temporary Housing office. Too many students’ futures depend on it. 

    With only a couple weeks left to finalize its plans to allocate the remaining federal COVID-relief funds, the DOE must support families in shelters and invest in the people and programs that will break down barriers to education and open doors for students experiencing homelessness. 

    Pringle is the director of Project LIT at Advocates for Children of New York. Read article