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Young and Homeless in New York

Security BlanketsHouse the Homeless has been looking at the ongoing mess in New York City, bad enough before the catastrophic weather events hit, and not getting any better. To suggest that conditions are worse for any particular demographic group is specious, because human misery just can’t be quantified that way. There is plenty of it to go around and dish out a share for everybody. But the the kids are, without a doubt, having a rough time.

They are homeless for a lot of reasons. The little ones are, hopefully, still with their dispossessed parents who, without a roof of their own, are keeping the family together somehow. There are “throwaway” kids, whose parents don’t mind their departure because they are unwanted reminders of previous failed marriages, and runaways who escape physical abuse or other intolerable conditions. There are young people whose sexual orientation is unacceptable to their parents, and others who have “aged out” of the foster care system.

In June of last year, homeless advocacy groups reported 17,000 minors in New York City shelters every night, and Mayor Bloomberg maintained that the city’s shelters offered a “much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.” A Huffington Post writer gave an example of this idyllic existence as experienced by a 9-year-old child:

The girl and her mother, having been relocated to a shelter in uptown Manhattan, struggled to wake up at 4:45AM every morning to avoid being late for school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But despite their efforts, Whitnee Layne said her daughter was at the risk of being suspended because no matter how much they tried to arrive on time, the difficult commute was just too much.

In October, the nice round number of 20,000 kids in shelters was reported, and journalists were compelled to make comparisons with the Great Depression. There are towns with total populations smaller than the number of children sleeping in New York City shelters, struggling with overcrowding and broken families and poor nutrition and interrupted schooling and inadequate medical care.

As AlterNet‘s Tana Ganeva had already pointed out the previous year, as many as 65% of the families that apply for shelter space in the city do not get in, so the bureaucracy’s numbers don’t include “homeless kids who are not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away.” In that same time frame, New York Magazine‘s Noreen Malone noted that the city’s public schools enrolled nearly 43,000 students without fixed abode. And that was before Hurricane Sandy and massive flooding.

Nationwide, at the present time, about 1 million public school students go “home” to shelters, cars, vans, abandoned buildings, cheap motels, church basements, garages, or odd corners in the homes of relatives or friends. The destabilizing effect of homelessness affects the young in numerous ways, impeding their normal mental and psychological growth and physical well-being.

The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that homeless kids are four times as likely to have delayed development and twice as likely to experience learning disabilities, and these disabilities are often unrecognized and untreated. More than a third of these kids wind up repeating at least one grade.

A lot of things that housed children take for granted homeless children don’t even know about. They don’t have computers or quiet places to do homework. They probably don’t get enough sleep. Kids whose circumstances force frequent transfers to new schools are only half as likely to even graduate from high school. Kids who don’t graduate are twice as likely to become poverty statistics and join the ranks of second-generation homeless, and the long-range effect of that is a life expectancy of nine years less than average.

In grade school, middle school, and high school (if they make it that far) homeless kids are anxious and depressed, and prone to behavioral problems. They can’t concentrate in class. Inadequate sleep, hunger, and fear of the future, says Carol Smith of Enumclaw, WA, Patch.com, leads to “increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can wreak havoc on young brains.”

Tana Ganeva says:

Homeless kids get sick more often and with stranger and more serious ailments than poor kids who have homes, suffering respiratory infections and digestive infections at significantly higher rates.

These children tend to withdraw from social interaction and have what are called “attachment disorders.” They might even be shunned or bullied by classmates who look down on them. Any friendships that they manage to create are likely to be broken by frequent relocations.

But while there is plenty of research showing how homelessness affects children, there isn’t much on what schools could be doing to better the situation. For the Christian Science Monitor, Michelle D. Anderson interviewed Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University, author of Homelessness Comes to School, whom she quotes on the subject of the Mckinney-Vento Law:

Before the law was passed, only about 25 percent of homeless students were in school. Today, that number is 85 percent… The law requires that schools waive typical requirements, such as proof of residency… It also waives requirements mandating that parents provide medical, immunization, and academic records, and requires schools to offer transportation options.

Sounds good, right? So good, in fact, that caring attorneys were moved to create Project LEARN (Lawyers Education Access Resource Network) to provide legal advocacy to homeless families when school districts are ignorant of, or simply ignore, the law. According to their website:

Across the country, children are being kicked out of school when they become homeless. It’s not something you hear talked about much. Maybe that’s because homelessness in general is ignored in our public discourse. This may even be the first time you’re hearing about it.

But not the last. The whole situation is a ticking time bomb whose eventual results are set to tear the entire fabric of our society to shreds.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Children In NYC Shelters Rises To 19000, Near Great Depression Highs,” The Huffington Post, 09/10/12
Source: “How One GOP Plutocrat Helped Make 20000 Kids Homeless,” AlterNet, 11/29/12
Source: “There’s Been a Surge in Homeless New York City Students,” New York Magazine, 9/8/11
Source: “Homeless Children Face Emotional, Developmental Hurdles,” Patch.com, 06/08/11
Source: “Schools facing rise in homeless students,” The Christian Science Monitor, 04012/11
Source: “Homeless children shouldn’t be kicked out of school,” HomelessnessLaw.org, 03/01/12
Image by elizaIO.