Testimony regarding support for homeless youth

Testimony of the UFT before the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Education

Good afternoon, and thank you Speaker Mark-Viverito, Councilman Dromm, Councilman Levin and members of these two committees. We appreciate the opportunity to speak before you today, and we value our ongoing partnership with the City Council on this and other important issues.

We support the bills you are considering here today — Intro 0572, Intro 1497 and Intro 1714. These bills require additional reporting on the number of homeless children and families, and require that families be provided information about the rights of homeless children with respect to school enrollment and transportation.

We believe additional reporting will help raise public awareness about the plight of homeless children, and the result will be more New Yorkers involved in a solution.

Our schools are faced with a complicated problem in how to provide support for homeless children. With nearly 23,000 students going to sleep in a city shelter tonight, it’s also disturbingly common. Sadly, school is often the only source of continuity in their lives, so we take our responsibility to these children very, very seriously.

As educators, we are acutely aware of the barriers that our homeless youth face, as well as the effect these barriers have on their ability to learn and have a meaningful experience in school. Homelessness also, not surprisingly, has an impact on a student’s emotional well-being.

For families operating close or below the poverty line, it doesn’t take much to upend their finances and stability and leave them struggling for food and shelter. Each of these students has a story, and many endure extreme situations. The family may have been evicted after a parent lost a job. A guardian may become critically ill and be unable to work. A grandparent may have died. Perhaps a parent has been jailed, or is struggling with a dependency issue. Perhaps domestic violence has forced a parent to flee with the children. And for every situation we can envision, a hundred others exist.

You can never lose sight that these children are at a fragile place in their lives. Imagine you’re 7 years old and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or where you will sleep that night. No child should ever have to endure that kind of psychological burden, and it often manifests itself in school as attendance or behavioral issues.

A child desperate for attention and seeking help may skip classes or act out in class. Without proper timely support, these issues can escalate into bigger problems such as suspensions or dropping out entirely, not to mention alcohol or drug abuse, and, in some cases, suicide. 

Not only are our schools attempting to address basic needs such as food and clothing but we provide these children crisis counseling and medical care. The safety net we create within a school has to reach far and wide because these students need stability and a steady stream of assistance. 

PS 398 in Brooklyn is one of many schools tackling these issues head-on every day by providing a warm and welcoming environment. The day begins with teachers and the principal greeting the children as they arrive. A building-wide initiative provides these students with their school supplies, plus clothing, coats and even toothbrushes and toothpaste. Homeless students are also given top priority in after-school programs, including those earmarked specifically for students in temporary housing run by the Friends of Crown Heights and the Afterschool Reading Club (ARC). Students there receive hot meals and homework assistance.

What’s more, FoodBank’s “CookShop” program is given to students and their parents or caregivers as a way to not only promote healthy eating and nutrition but also provide a solid meal. A partnership with NYU’s Parent Corps during the fall and spring helps parents develop positive social and emotional skills, and the school also offers GED and ESL classes in the mornings and evenings. These and many other initiatives are part of PS 398's comprehensive approach, and taken together, these programs are a lifeline for families that desperately need one.

At PS 47 in the Bronx, the staff has gone well beyond the usual food distributions, holiday feasts and backpack giveaways. These days, their parent coordinator directly connects with first-time parents in shelters to walk them through the enrollment process and other school-related initiatives, while also giving parents some personal attention.

Schools including Gotham Collaborative High School in the Bronx and PS 15 in Manhattan have become creative by creating in-school laundry rooms for parents. A simple solution to a complicated problem: How to care for your clothing without access to a washing machine and dryer. Furthermore, it brings the parents into the school, engaging them, which is what we want to do with all parents.

We’re grateful that our schools can count on many amazing partners in this work including the Coalition for the Homeless, and Women In Need (WIN), both of which provide comprehensive support to their partner schools.

Other problems abound when a student does not have a permanent home or financial security. They come to the classroom hungry. They’re probably exhausted from getting up early to travel a long way to school. Getting a solid night’s sleep in a shelter is difficult; Doing homework there, sometimes next to impossible. Educators must understand and respond to their needs. Remediation and tutoring would be easy if these students came to us well rested and well fed.

Our members — classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, therapists and nurses— are primary advocates for these children. These educators create a warm, safe positive experience for all children and are an incredible source of emotional assistance. 

The entire staff, of course, needs to an awareness about and sensitivity toward these children. Professional development helps staff understand the needs of these children. Principals can ensure that these students are placed in the appropriate classroom settings and have access to counselors and other trained professionals. 

The DOE can work with principals to make sure the school itself has the proper resources and is properly staffed with school counselors, social workers and psychologists. After school and evening programs can provide a much-needed respite, and the DOE can ensure those programs are in place as well. Breakfast, lunch and dinner programs can ensure these children are getting the proper nutrition. As important, we must help these children with the special transportation they need to continue attending one school and not bounce around a borough or the city.
Our community learning schools are perhaps best equipped to do this important work. They have layered additional programs, services and targeted supports on top of their programming. What’s more, community schools are designed to support not just the child, but the whole family with classes for adults, weekend programs for adults and children, health clinics for the family and a multitude of other family-oriented programming.

The community school directors who manage resource programming in our community schools play a key role in creating those links, by developing programs with food banks, after-school program providers and community health resources. The stronger the links and a stable atmosphere can help these at-risk children experience less stress and focus on their schoolwork.

At the International School for Liberal Arts in the Bronx – one of the UFT’s community learning schools -- the philosophy is to “meet parents where they’re at.” This led the school to become an official Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for the school community and the very first public high school to offer a permanent food pantry and distribution center. Partners such as Dunkin Donuts and J.P. Morgan Stanley have helped the school distribute hundreds of chicken meals not only to all the families in the school, but seven other collaborating schools. The International School for Liberal Arts is also part of the Tiered Engagement Network (T.E.N. Network) which means the school is a referring agency for social services to partnering service providers in the local community.

Another CLS school, Manhattan’s PS 30, benefits from support at holidays from the faith-based community in which it is located. As a result, the school and community partners provide emergency meal kits, snacks and full meals to the neediest families during holidays and holiday gifts to students, as well. The school works with New York Cares to provide winter clothing, coats and blankets. The teachers there credit strong ties with community organizations and CBOs that help bridge these gaps and help the students.

With the financial support the City Council provides to the Community Learning Schools Initiative, you help homeless children every day. We thank you for that support. Your assistance helps these children better cope with an uncertain future and the hand they were dealt.

Bottom line: We can make a difference in the lives of these children and schools can do their part with the proper support. We can help them eat, dress well, handle stress, enjoy school and succeed. But cooperation and collaboration are key. We all must work together to help these children by making sure we know who they are, where they are and what they need. Then, of course, we must provide the funding for the appropriate resources and staff required. When schools are given the means to help, school can take the appropriate road to help these students.

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