Opinion: Listening to What NYC’s Homeless Students Have to Tell Us

(CITYLIMITS.ORG) September 7, 2019

The first day of school is a day of promise and possibility for the more than 1.1 million students in our city schools. But the one out of ten students in New York City schools who are homeless face formidable obstacles the others won’t. Since these obstacles are too often invisible to the public eye, these students want you to know what they are facing and what you can do to help them have the same opportunity to succeed in school as their peers.

I heard their stories and witnessed their intelligence and resilience when I had the honor of teaching a documentary workshop for middle and high school students who are homeless. They collaboratively produced a Know Your Rights video documentary as part of a Saturday program run by the NYC DOE Office of Students in Temporary Housing. Their goal was to inform others about their living conditions and their rights to an equitable education under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. They also sought to counter the stigma of living in shelters and show other homeless students that they are not alone. I am writing in this space to support their advocacy and further amplify their voices.

Through no fault of their own, many of these 115,000 students are chronically absent or late to school and are more likely to be suspended and fall below grade level. They come to school hungry, sleep-deprived, socially isolated, digitally disconnected, culturally stereotyped and suffering from the trauma of housing loss. They’re survivors of the massive community displacement and upheaval that has been produced by stagnant wages, hyper-gentrification and the disappearance of affordable housing. Living in shelters, motels, cars, doubled up with family or friends, or are unsheltered, their numbers have increased by 42 percent over the last five years. The shelter system’s lack of capacity to serve the record number of homeless families in their charge creates additional barriers to their success in school.

For their documentary, the students interviewed community members, Students in Temporary Housing staff, each other, and their family members. Through the process, they became empowered to advocate for their rights. They had courage to tell their stories and take their video cameras into their shelters to document their family’s conditions with the hope that we adults—teachers, principals, case workers, politicians, activists, and the general public—might listen, take notice and take action to dismantle the inequities in their housing and schooling. Their short film was presented at a Columbia University conference for school social workers.