Navigating School as a Homeless Student

Many Homeless Families Experience Network Impoverishment Which Can Exacerbate Crises Leading to Homelessness

A November 19, 2019, New York Times article, “114,000 Students in N.Y.C. Are Homeless.” These Two Let Us Into Their Lives” gives readers first-hand knowledge about what is life for children and their families who try to navigate the daily routine of school while homeless.

The children profiled in the story face the hurdles in their education of commuting 15 miles a day to school, sleeping crammed together with family members in one room and moving very frequently – in one case seven times in the past five years.

Think about how difficult it is for children to concentrate in school after a long, tiring commute that they have to get up very early to make, not sleeping well because of tight quarters which could include sharing a bathroom and kitchen with another family the disruption of constantly having to adjust to a new school, new teacher, new classmates and new curriculum.

For students experiencing homelessness or students at risk of homelessness who are living doubled- up with friends and family, school may be the only stability in their lives. When you see children on the playground or commuting to school, you may not even realize that they are homeless.

While the students profiled in this NYT article, similar stories play out every day all across New Jersey. NJCounts 2019, the state-wide point-in-time count of the homeless, found that 1,831 children under the age of 18 experienced homelessness. This number of children made up 20.6% of the total individuals, 8,864, experiencing homelessness on January 22, 2019. While children under the age of four or five may not be attending school, they may be part of families with older children who are in school.

For students living in families at risk of homelessness, many households struggle to pay for their rent including renting a room in a shared residence. And if the household doesn’t have enough income and pays the majority of what little income it has towards rent, then homelessness may be just around the corner if even the smallest crisis hits.

Many of the families of students experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Parents may have grown up in the foster care system and never known a home of their own.

Families, especially Black and Native American families, may experience network impoverishment which is a phenomenon that means that not only is the individual or family, but the entire network, lacks the economic and social capital necessary to prevent and end homelessness. This means that when a family experiences a crisis, or crisis after crisis, there are no family or friends to give them money for rent, a car repair or medical bills. Nor do they havefamily and friends often do not have the space or ability to welcome them into their own homes.

Or if family or friends were to take them in, they may put their own housing at risk. Blacks and Native Americans are groups that are significantly more likely to become homeless not just due to poverty but due to historical systemic oppression.

But what if families experiencing homelessness where rapidly rehoused and given the supports they need to stay housed? Or despite any traditional “barriers” to being ready to be housed, they were moved into Housing First model apartments? Families could bypass or briefly experience the shelter system, move in to their own apartments near their children’s schools and their children would see much more stability in their academic careers.