Getting to School: A Look at Student Homelessness in NYC

Children’s experiences at home and at school and how they relate is arguably one of the most important factors in determining the opportunities and challenges children encounter in their daily lives. School-related data on children who are homeless brings this relationship into stark relief.

In the Equality Indicators’ 2016 Annual Report, three of the four indicators within the topic of Homelessness track disparities that focus on homeless children. One of these indicators examines the ratio between school-absenteeism rates for homeless and non-homeless children. This year, we found a similar disparity as last year: Children living in shelters were more than twice as likely to miss school compared to their peers in stable housing. Data from the Institute for Childhood, Poverty, and Homeless (ICPH) shed further light on this issue.

Earlier this year, ICPH published a report and atlas that provide a detailed look at homeless students in New York City’s educational system. Using data from the New York City Department of Education, ICPH tabulated findings for the city’s 32 school districts. The findings suggest that the experiences of students who are homeless are distinct from students in low-income households, but also that the experiences of homeless students across school districts is not uniform.

For example, homeless students living in shelters had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, which means missing 20 or more days of school. According to ICPH’s citywide calculations for the 2014-15 school year, 57.7% of students living in shelters were chronically absent. Students living in doubled up conditions—that is, living with another family or other person due to loss of housing or economic hardship—were chronically absent at the rate of 24.6%. Stably-housed students from low-income families (those receiving free lunch) were chronically absent at the rate of 23.1%, about the same as their doubled-up peers. And other stably-housed students (those who do not receive free lunch) were chronically absent at the rate of 15.3%.

Chronic absenteeism among homeless students varied by school district. The seven highest rates of chronic absenteeism among homeless students were in districts 8 (Hunts Point/Longwood) and 12 (East Tremont) in the Bronx, district 5 (Central Harlem/Manhattanville) in Manhattan, and districts 13 (Brooklyn Heights/Fort Greene), 16 (Bedford-Stuyvesant), 19 (East New York/Starrett City), and 23 (Brownsville) in Brooklyn. All had rates greater than 43%. The school district with the lowest rate of chronic absenteeism among homeless students was district 20 (Bay Ridge/Dyker Heights/Borough Park) in Brooklyn (17.3%).

There are multiple factors that likely contribute to school absenteeism, and the basic challenge of getting to school may be one.

According to the 2016 Mayor’s Management Report, 52.9% of families in shelters were placed according to their youngest school-age child’s school address during fiscal year 2015, the same timeframe of the data used in ICPH’s analysis. Children from families not placed in shelters near their schools may, therefore, face much longer commutes. Longer commutes may mean these students have less time to rest and prepare for the next day, or even pose a challenge to getting to school at all.

School absenteeism is a critical indicator of educational outcomes. Multiple studies link chronic absenteeism to negative outcomes for students, such as lower academic achievement and lower graduation rates.

There are, however, specific efforts aimed at addressing this issue. As part of a larger effort to support homeless families seeking shelter, New York City implemented a new rule in November at its intake center in the Bronx known as PATH (Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing). Children are no longer required to revisit the intake center with their parents if their parents reapply for shelter within 30 days, which is the case for nearly half of families visiting PATH. (Previously, the entire family was required to appear at PATH, even to reapply.) The hope of city officials and advocates for homeless families is that the new rule will translate into fewer missed days at school for children in families seeking shelter.