The number of homeless public school students in New York City reached an all-time high of 119,320 last school year, according to new data released Wednesday, as migrants crossing the southern border continued to flock to the city.
Since last summer alone, more than 30,000 new students in temporary housing have enrolled in city schools, including some 12,000 in the last five months who were not reflected in the data.
The statistics — which include children in shelters, hotels, relatives’ homes and other transient places — illuminate the challenges for Mayor Eric Adams’s administration in handling the rise in homeless students. They are uniquely vulnerable, dropping out at steep rates and often missing school. New York City’s homeless student population is now larger than the entire traditional public school system of Philadelphia.
As the system’s overall enrollment shrinks, the rise in homelessness among children means the issue has touched more schools. Now, about 1 in 9 New York City students are homeless. Some areas of the city have been especially hard hit, however. In one section of the Bronx, more than 22 percent of students were homeless.
The numbers are swelling as the city grapples with a housing shortage and schools face intense financial pressures. The constraints have left some crucial services for homeless students in the system, the nation’s largest, increasingly under threat.
“The situation is becoming more dire,” leaders at Advocates for Children of New York, the nonprofit that has collected thefor more than a decade, warned in a news release.
Migrant children have made up most of the increase. The students could ultimately be a boon for many schools, helping those with declining enrollment to stave off budget cuts. But several school leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the system was not doing enough to support them.
One Manhattan principal said the Education Department needs to create a separate office to oversee migrant issues and better coordinate resources and enrollment.
Another principal worried that some migrant teenagers might never fully catch up on their schooling before it was time to graduate. And a Brooklyn principal was concerned that migrant students with learning disabilities might not be diagnosed and could miss out on getting help.
The Education Department did not return a request for comment. But the chancellor, David C. Banks, said recently that the system is still “learning lessons each and every step of the way.”
The last record for the number of homeless students in the city was 114,600 in the 2017-18 school year, and 104,000 lacked stable housing during the last school year.
More than 133,000 people fleeing economic and political chaos have arrived since last year; most are families with children. The city has hired about 100 staff members who help families living in shelters with school issues.
But those workers are increasingly stretched thin, and dozens of new emergency shelters have opened recently without new Education Department hires. For every 560 or so students learning English as a new language, the city has roughly one bilingual social worker.
The city has about 1,700 bilingual teachers who are fluent in Spanish, and recently loosenedin an effort to increase their ranks. Some schools with few bilingual educators have relied on Google Translate to rework lessons and field questions.
“The first thing that glaringly stood out to us was language access,” said Arash Azizzada, who runs a small community organization that works with Afghan immigrant families, who mainly speak Dari or Farsi. “The city is just not equipped.”
At many schools, other parents have stepped in, donating supplies, preparing meals and calling elected officials about problems. But there are other needs families cannot address.
Some educators believe a mental health crisis for migrant children — many of whom made dangerous journeys to get here and now face social isolation — is looming. They worry that schools remain unequipped to tackle trauma. “You could easily reconstruct the school-to-prison pipeline with this population if you don’t understand what they’re going through,” said Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, who runs Counseling in Schools, a mental health organization.
María Marín, a parent volunteer, has helped at P.S. 124 in Brooklyn, where about half of students live in temporary housing. Last year, one young boy from Venezuela sprinted out of his classroom and began sitting with her in an office on some days, because he felt uneasy and missed his grandmother back home, she said.
She said she worries long-term instability will make students’ transitions even tougher.
“We’re in a vicious cycle,” she said. “For the kids to feel safe and secure, they need to see their parents feel safe and secure.”
This week outside the Row NYC hotel, which has been converted into a family shelter, parents described mixed experiences with the city’s school system.
One mother, Cinthya Quiñonez, 32, said it was “super easy” to enroll her teenage daughter after migrating from Venezuela last month. But they are leaving on Thursday for Utah; the city paid for their one-way flights as part of an effort to encourage migrants to leave.
Others families are stressed over school and work.
Jean Carlos Porras Leal, 28, and his wife were warned that because they arrived from Venezuela last month, after the deadline expired to apply for a special work permit, they could face deportation should they apply. Their daughter is eligible for the city’s free preschool program, but they need help signing her up. “They’re telling us we have to have a stable address in order to enroll,” he said.
Even before migrants began arriving in large numbers, the system had a small city’s worth of homeless students who struggled to receive support: More than 75 percent are not proficient on state reading tests, and a huge number regularly miss school. About 14,000 homeless students, who are included in the overall numbers, attend charters.
Other districts across the state have also struggled to serve homeless students. This summer, the state attorney general, Letitia James, said some districts were using discriminatory and illegal practices, like demanding migrant parents provide a voter registration card to enroll their children.
But the numbers in New York City are on entirely different scale.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Eric Adams announced a 60-day limit on how long families could stay at any one shelter, as another way to encourage people to leave the homeless shelter system — or the city altogether. Homeless children have a federal right to stay in the same school if they move, but advocates worry the change will lead to longer commutes and missed class time.
Lenin Guano Silva, 23, was unaware of the new time limit on shelter stays.
He worried what it could mean for his sister-in-law, Yadira, and her young son and two teenage daughters, who recently migrated from Ecuador.
“What are we supposed to do?” he asked. “We’ve seen the women with their kids on the street. We can’t let that happen to her.”
Liset Cruz contributed reporting.