Nearly 115,000 students in New York City schools experienced homelessness during the 2017–18 school year, according to new data released by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) last month. As reported by the New York Times, that figure represents 1 in 10 New York City public and charter school students. Our look at the data on noncharter public school students shows that even that alarming share hides the pervasiveness of student homelessness in some communities.
We mapped New York State homelessness data to the student population of each New York City school district and found that the city’s homeless students are concentrated in a few communities. More than half the city’s homeless students live in just 10 of the city’s 32 public school districts. In one Bronx school district, as many as one in four students experienced homelessness in the past year. In Bronx, Harlem, and East Brooklyn districts, more than one in five students experienced homelessness.
Sources for the figure above: 2017- 2018 data on student homelessness from the New York State Student Information Repository System. Data on geographic school district population is current from the New York State Education Department website.
The geographies with the highest rates of student homelessness have large proportions of black and Latino students and have some of the city’s highest poverty rates and largest rent burdens. Nationally, the number of students experiencing homelessness is rising. But in New York, the proportion of homeless students is higher than in other large cities. In Chicago about 5 percent of students were homeless in 2016. In Los Angeles, it was just above 3 percent.
New York should address the different types of homelessness
Students experienced homelessness in different ways. For some, homelessness meant doubling up in a home with another family, staying in a hotel or motel, or sleeping in a homeless shelter. For others, it meant spending the night unsheltered or sleeping in places not intended for sleeping, such as in cars, parks, encampments, temporary trailers, or abandoned buildings.
Across the city, doubling up was the most common form of temporary housing among homeless students, followed by staying in shelters, according to NYSED data. In the past year, 70,000 students doubled up, nearly 40,000 stayed in a shelter, and 6,000 were in unsheltered situations. Staying in shelters was more common among homeless students in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, where more than one in three were sheltered, compared with Queens and Staten Island, where just over one in five homeless students were in shelter.
Though New York has a right to shelter policy, many students spent time unsheltered last school year. Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn have 80, 87, and 93 homeless shelters, respectively, but 4,645 students were unsheltered in those boroughs. Queens has 26 shelters, and Staten Island has 1. In these boroughs, where there are dramatically fewer shelters, students doubled up at higher rates.
Homelessness hurts students and communities
In high-cost cities like New York, economics drive homelessness and residential instability. Affordability and availability of housing plays an outsized role. Changes in income, family situation, and health can send low-income families into poverty and put their residential stability at risk.
For students, homelessness presents unique challenges. Homeless children often suffer from high rates of hunger and malnourishment, as well as other health problems that make it difficult to focus in the classroom. Without the stability of a home, students experiencing homelessness often change schools frequently, lack tools to succeed academically, and tend to perform worse on academic tests. Schools also struggle when child homelessness rates are high. Research shows that high turnover rates from residential instability can harm schools by straining already-limited resources.
These experiences can set children up for grim outcomes. Nearly a quarter of young adults ages 13 to 25 who experienced homelessness as young adults had precursors of family homelessness as children.
Homelessness is a solvable problem
The solutions to homelessness are clear and supported by evidence. So why are there still so many homeless in a city that puts so many resources into serving the homeless?
Increasing shelter capacity and temporary housing options to accommodate a large and growing homeless population can stem urgent need. But homeless shelters, while critical for responding to families in crisis, are not a long-term solution and are expensive. In New York, the cost of shelter has gone up dramatically. For families stuck in shelter, policymakers could adopt solutions like rapid re-housing, which provides short term housing assistance and case management for families. Rapid re-housing has been shown to help families exit shelter faster than they would be able to on their own. But they need someplace to go.
According to the Urban Institute’s rental housing affordability map, there is a severe lack of affordable housing across the boroughs. In the Bronx, there are only 58 affordable housing units available for every 100 extremely low–income renters. In Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, there are 51, 48, and 50 units for every 100 who need them. And in Queens, there are only 27 available units for every 100 renters who need them. Most of these affordable units are available only to low-income renters through US Department of Housing and Urban Development assistance. Long-term rent vouchers help families maintain housing stability and protect against future homelessness. But voucher waiting lists are long, and many landlords won’t accept them. More vouchers and help finding units are important pieces of the puzzle. Preservation of existing affordable units is also critical.
To help families remain in their homes and avoid homelessness, the city could increase the capacity of its successful homelessness prevention program, Homebase. To increase service efficiency, research suggests improved targeting of preventive services to the most at-risk families.
New York’s efforts across education, homelessness, and housing systems has failed to stop a rise in homelessness among students. The concentration of student homelessness in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem requires attention and action. For families, homelessness has to do with housing, housing, housing. For policymakers, this means increasing the availability of affordable housing by preserving and producing affordable units, increasing housing vouchers and rapid re-housing, and helping families remain in housing through homelessness and eviction prevention in the communities where need is greatest. By investing in proven policies, New York City can ensure its public school students get a fair shot in the classroom.