Data released by the nonprofit organization Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) reveals that more than 101,000 New York City students experienced homelessness in the 2020-21 school year. Of those children, almost half (47.9%) were Black.
Officials from AFC say the new numbers are a 42% increase since the start of the decade and have remained persistent in recent years. During the COVID-19 pandemic when schools closed, nearly 28,000 students were learning remotely in shelters with 65,000 living “doubled-up” with friends or family, staying temporarily with others in overcrowded housing. An additional 3,860 students were unsheltered last year, living in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings.
Last year marked the sixth consecutive year that there were more than 100,000 students identified as homeless in city schools. Areas of the city that saw the highest levels of homeless students were in Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn and the Bronx where about one in seven students were homeless.
The total number of students identified as homeless was 9% lower than in 2019-20. The decline is likely attributable to the drop in overall public school enrollment (3.3%), as well as the difficulty schools experienced identifying students whose housing situation changed while they were learning remotely.
AFC is calling on Mayor-elect Eric Adams to take action to address the educational needs of students experiencing homelessness.
“No child should be homeless, but while Mayor-elect Adams’ administration makes plans to tackle New York City’s housing and homelessness crisis, they must meet the immediate, daily educational needs of students who are homeless,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of AFC.
In an interview with the AmNews, AFC policy director Randi Levine said city schools are required to identify students who are experiencing homelessness and report their information to the state. The data comes from the state’s education department. Levine said people don’t know how serious the number of students who are homeless in the city.
“We think it’s critical for the public to know not only the number of students who are homeless, but the educational barriers that these students face in order to drive more attention and resources to this group of students,” she said.
Those barriers include not being able to get a quality education leading to a legacy of homelessness. In 2019, only 29% of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8 were reading proficiently, according to state tests, 20 percentage points lower than the rate for their permanently housed peers. Students living in shelters—94% of whom are Black or Hispanic—face even more barriers to educational success.
Prior to the pandemic, 57% of students living in shelters were already chronically absent—missing at least one out of every 10 school days in 2019-20—and only 52% of students living in shelters graduated high school in four years, 27 percentage points lower than the citywide average graduation rate.
“Students who are homeless, who don’t graduate from high school are more likely to become adults who are homeless,” Levine said. “We’re recommending that Mayor-elect Adams bring together city agencies with City Hall leadership and charge them with tackling educational barriers for students who are homeless.”
Jacquelyn Simone, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, Inc., told the AmNews that the number of homeless students is a sign of the persistent affordable housing crisis in the city. Many New Yorkers living paycheck to paycheck before the COVID-19 pandemic fell behind on rent or were already in a precarious housing situation and became homeless.
“We know that also, we are facing a significant risk that many more people could become homeless in the coming months, once the protections such as the eviction moratorium, and the emergency rental assistance program end,” Simone said. “There’s a real risk that those rates will grow even further unless there is significant investment by all levels of government in homelessness prevention, as well as in creating more permanent affordable housing for people with the lowest income.”
Remote learning was especially difficult for homeless students during the pandemic due to many shelters not having adequate WiFi or even cellular service. Last year, the Legal Aid Society worked with the Coalition for the Homeless to bring a lawsuit against the city resulting in the installation of WiFi in every shelter for families with children.
“Many homeless students couldn’t even connect to the digital classroom and they were falling behind––in addition to all of the stresses of homelessness,” Simone said. “These kids could not connect to school or do their homework assignments. We need to treat housing as a fundamental human right and not as a privilege.”
In a statement to the AmNews, the city’s Department of Education (DOE) said over the past two years, the department has almost doubled the number of dedicated personnel working in schools and shelters to over 300 staff members, including hiring 107 school-based STH Community Coordinators, and the addition of 31 additional Bridging the Gap Social Workers (bringing the total number to 100). There are now 324 DOE personnel in direct contact with students and families daily.
“We prioritize supporting those students and families affected by homelessness, and we are encouraged that we saw a nine percent decrease in the number of students over the past two years,” a spokesperson said. “The DOE has nearly doubled the number of dedicated staff members working in school and shelters to 324 and we know there is always more work to do.”