Testimony regarding the DOE's support for students who are homeless or in temporary housing

Testimony of UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford before the Joint City Council Committee on Education and General Welfare

Good afternoon. My name is Karen Alford and I am the vice president for elementary schools at the United Federation of Teachers. On behalf of our 200,000 members and the 1.1 million students we serve, I wish to thank Chairs Danny Dromm and Stephen Levin and the members of the Committees on Education and General Welfare, respectively, for your oversight regarding the support provided for our public school students who lack the basic security of a permanent home.

This subject matter wrenches our hearts we cannot allow it to dampen our resolve. Therefore, we appreciate the opportunity to present strategies to you that we believe can significantly improve outcomes for children and support their families as well.


Poverty creates a complex web of problems for all families, young and old.  While many have recovered in part or in full from the 2008 financial crisis, our less fortunate NYC families are still looking for work, have settled for low-paying jobs without benefits, or cobble together several jobs to bring home a meager salary. Combine that with rents that leave even our middle-class families struggling and you have a perfect storm for those living on the margins to lose their homes.

But this time around, the homeless crisis has a different face — families with young children. What’s newsworthy here is that despite the economic recovery of the last five years, thousands of our children have joined the ranks of the homeless.

This discussion today extends beyond students living in shelters as indicated in the federal McKinney Vento Homelessness Assistance Act. We must count the children who are doubled up with other family members, or staying in motels, or sleeping in abandoned buildings, train stations, the family car or even outdoors. Those children attend our city’s public schools, and we must help them.

Getting a handle on the numbers is difficult. We reported last November in our union newspaper that the city saw a “25 percent increase in homeless among the city’s public school students between 2010-11 and 2013-14 — a staggering 8 percent of the entire school population.”1

This meant 83,000 of our public school children didn’t have the luxury of a home address. A more recent report from the Department of Education2 indicates this number is now well over 100,000.

Being homeless is devastating for an adult or a child. But the impact is different. How can a child focus on learning when he doesn’t know where he’s sleeping at night, or has no place of his own where he can do his homework? When he’s listened to his parents fight about money all night?

The reality is, not having enough food, clean clothing and a place to adequately bathe only adds to a child’s pain and compromises their ability to learn and concentrate in school.

The problems are layered so multiple stakeholders must work together to address them. These are issues that extend beyond our schools. Our members — classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, therapists and nurses— can play a pivotal role, and want to. But we need the city’s support. We can’t address these problems working in silos. We need each of the city agencies, the community-based organization partnerships, the UFT’s initiatives and non-profits working together.

We have reason to hope that we’ll see some collaborative efforts in the future. We are pleased that Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to this crisis by creating a Children’s Cabinet, chaired by Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, to foster tighter collaboration between city agencies focused on children’s welfare issues. Equally critical, this task force will seek to quantify the impact of poverty and homelessness on a child’s cognitive development.

Bringing the issue into focus

We can broadly discuss child homelessness as a citywide issue, but that doesn’t reveal an authentic view because the problem is not evenly spread. Only a handful of the system’s 32 community school districts have a large number of shelters that house families or have an above average number of children living in temporary housing.

We found that 15 percent or more of public school children are homeless in Harlem’s District 5, the Bronx’s Districts 9, 10 and 12 and central Brooklyn’s Districts 16 and 23.3 Not surprisingly in the wealthier neighborhoods across the city, the percentage dropped below five percent.

Within these districts, we have schools where the percentage of these students not only outpace the citywide averages, but exceed the average in their districts. In District 7, for example, 57 percent of the schools have more homeless children than is average for the district. And 50 percent or more of the schools in Districts 5, 9, 10, and 23, share that dubious distinction.

I recently visited PS 156 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville where the total enrollment hovers just north of 800. Of those children, 125 either live in shelters or in some form of temporary housing.  Among the many issues these children face is getting to school in the morning. According to the Institute for Children, 38 percent of homeless students were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year. That means these children missed 20 days or more of school that year. The UFT has partnered with Attendance Works and we can say unequivocally that chronic absenteeism places children at a significant disadvantage academically.

Tina Hernandez, the principal of PS/IS 123 in Manhattan, notes that attendance is critical for her students who live in shelters. In her case, she’s receiving a number of children from domestic violence shelters, which adds another dimension to the issues these children have. She explained that “the points of contact and navigating how to support the families in crisis can be difficult due to the privacy and safety protocols. When students have a 407, which is an extended absence issue, it is extremely difficult to locate the families. We had 10 students on our no-show list since the beginning of the year, we finally located five of those students just [in] the past two weeks.”

Offering bus transportation to home schools

We understand that the DOE’s recently expanded busing initiative is working. This initiative provides bus rides to students living in shelters who were previously deemed ineligible. As with most new programs, we saw some initial glitches. Some students are traveling from Brooklyn to the Bronx, while others are traveling from Staten Island to Harlem. We were pleased to learn that the DOE has intervened in instances where staffing issues caused problems, and that the DOE has provided training for schools receiving students from these buses.

 While we don’t wish to minimize any difficulties faced by families and schools in busing children long distances, we believe it benefits everyone that these families have formed strong ties to their home schools and are committed to maintaining those relationships. Finally, this shelter busing has not surfaced as an issue in our routine discussions and visits at schools.

The Community Learning School model and other support initiatives

We appreciate the support that the City Council has provided with the launch and expansion of our Community Learning Schools Initiative. This model, we believe, provides a strong response to the impact of poverty and homelessness at the school level. Through CLS, we care for and educate the whole child, serve the families and partner with the community to address specific, identified needs.

Across the city, CLS resource coordinators are engaging our members, parents and community-based organizations to build partnerships to serve the children with the greatest need. Resource Coordinator Sharon Sinclair explained how at her school, PS 156, workshops are provided to parents — right at their point of need — in the shelter. Parents learn about their children’s’ learning styles, how to improve the quality of communication among family members, and how to cope with change in their lives. They’re planning workshops on relieving stress, fitness for life and healthy living. Sinclair advised, “The relationship deepens when the children see us at their shelter and then see us at school; they feel a greater sense of trust. It shows them we have understanding and respect.”

The school has 125 homeless children, but also has many high-needs children who have a home. To help  all these children, our CLS initiative supports the Saturday Academy with both academic and enrichment programs, a 21st century grant program to help parents assist their children with math, nutrition programs, a food pantry and a major coat drive. We’re performing school miracles here.

District 5 has 13 shelters. To handle this, District 5 is home to schools that are part of our CLS Initiative, as well as community schools that the Mayor de Blasio has funded to address chronic absenteeism. Those schools are marshalling their efforts to support these children and families. In East Harlem at PS 30, the CLS resource coordinator has partnered with Food Bank New York and over 20 religious institutions and individuals forming a faith-based consortium to meet some of the need.

Through a financial literacy program, the Food Bank helps parents budget and occasionally obtain emergency financial assistance. Through CLS, parents are assisted with job readiness and preparedness skills. The school plans to open an “optical academy” providing vision exams and glasses for parents, students and staff.  But even though help is available, according to Resource Coordinator Shell Lewis, “Parents don’t always want others to be aware of their situation; sometimes, the lack of a GED is a barrier. There’s a lot of depression, mental health issues and currently, our health center provides screening for students only. “

While homelessness in the elementary and middle schools receives much of the news coverage, the high schools also are faced with the issues brought through their doors by  students in temporary housing. At the International School for Liberal Arts in the Bronx, where approximately 145 students of the school’s 561 live in temporary housing, we had a particularly wonderful success story with a parent and her son.

Our resource coordinator described the young man as “amazing at math.” He trained through the Virtual Free tax program offered by Food Bank NYC and earned a CTE/VITA IRS certification. He also volunteered to help parents prepare their taxes and served as a translator for parents of English language learners. Upon receiving his high school diploma, he became employed full-time. Plus, he now has the skills to work during the peak tax season at the major tax preparation franchises. 

His mother received job help and legal assistance from the school’s partner, the Tiered Engagement Network. She’s now working and she has a case against her former landlord.

We have other examples of how community learning schools are changing people’s lives. West Bronx Academy’s UFT chapter leader Meghan Maxwell and her team began the school year by providing new clothing and school supplies to high school students in need. To combat cases of chronic absenteeism, an attendance team is working with New Visions and has developed a text message app to reach out to the parents if students are absent.

We have plenty of evidence that wrapping support services around our schools makes a powerful difference for children and families. At the end of the day, educators want to see children grow intellectually and develop academically. Chapter Leader Grace Smalls captured what many of our members have said: “The things that are done for the students help them to concentrate on learning. They’re more excited to come to school and it enhances our teaching. We are concentrating on more instruction because we’re not as worried about the things we were worried about before.”

Combating poverty and child homelessness must be a public-private priority

Band-Aids® and temporary fixes only delay the downward spiral for families and children who are forced by high rents and low incomes into situations of tenuous housing. It is sobering to note that according to the Child Welfare Watch, 12.5 percent of families who receive housing return to the shelter system within one year. It’s not enough to provide housing – it takes all the various assistance programs working together to truly prevent a family on the edge from teetering off.

Last, we need your help and your support. Our children and families deserve the checks and balances that you, our City Council representatives, provide so our efforts do not mitigate one problem and cause another. We value the work of your committees and request that you maintain vigorous oversight regarding these issues to protect our most vulnerable students.

These children are our future. What we do to stabilize their lives today will produce dividends for all of us in the years to come. We join with parents and education advocates in express our appreciation of the Council’s strong leadership on this issue.

1)      August 2015, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness

2)      NYC Department of Education 2014-15 School Quality Reports

3)      November 2015 New York Teacher, United Federation of Teachers

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