Schools are Sanctuaries for Homeless Students

Originally posted by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, AFSA Local 1 in New York City.

Every day, we pass homeless children on our subways and streets, and few of us see them as they are. They’re usually not recognizable as homeless unless desperate-eyed parents pushing battered metal shopping carts accompany them. On their own, children are just children, circumstances unknown, like the “Invisible Child” in The New York Times series:  an 11-year-old girl named Dasani who lived in a hellish city shelter in Fort Greene. Most people see Dasani and children like her in the literal sense, but they don’t see them in the context of their sometimes horrific existence. Those few who do see them in context are probably the people who educate them.

When I was the Principal at IS 55 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville most of my homeless children came from the Amboy Street shelter. Today, 20 years later, Principal Beverly Logan at nearby PS 156 has homeless children from Amboy as well as four other shelters and several domestic violence sites. Miraculously, she has one of the few schools in her district that hasn’t been shortlisted for closure. During the holiday season, it is not unusual to find her and her staff at a nonprofit on Church Avenue and Flatbush gathering food after school to deliver to their children in temporary housing.

Long-time school leaders serving high poverty neighborhoods will tell you that the homeless child situation is much more extensive today than it was before 2002, their unofficial responsibilities are greater and so are their chances of seeing their schools close down. They and their staffs often serve as the only stable adult figures for children from families that are caught up in a cycle of addiction and incarceration.  They are the unofficial providers of basic needs for these children as well as others from “good” families that plunged into homelessness after 2008.

Sometimes, they are also their muses, like Dasani’s teacher Faith Hester, or guardian angels, like her principal Paula Holmes at the McKinney School. Dasani’s love for Ms. Holmes is fierce and immutable. It’s a love that approaches the holy.

In light of all that they do for their dispossessed students, these educators should be recognized, revered and provided much more support than they get. But they can’t take anything for granted. In the aftermath of the Times story, Paula Holmes received not a word of thanks from her city; instead, she received a couple of petty reprimands for revelations in the story. The fact is when we multiply Dasani by 22,000, the number of our city’s homeless children, there is no doubt that there are thousands of educators who are bursting out of the confines of the expected and the required and treating homeless children as a sacred trust.

Even in a smaller and prestigious public school in a low-income neighborhood, the fact of homelessness is almost inescapable today. Now that Mott Hall 5 has moved to the west side of the Bronx, Principal Peter Oroszlany has transient students who struggle to preserve self-esteem by keeping their homelessness secret. Their obvious hunger and hygiene problems  give them away. Some are afraid to open their backpacks because their clothing will fall out. Winning their trust can mean giving them extra food without breaking the rules, allowing a clean uniform shirt to appear mysteriously in a locker, accepting high fives and hugs even if it’s against regulations. Mr. Oroszlany tries to keep on top of their attendance, sometimes by visiting them where they live.

While most Principals acknowledge the spiraling numbers of children in temporary housing, some say that the relationship between most shelters and schools is improving.  Kim Hill, Principal of PS 95 in Jamaica, has seen a strong bond develop between shelter social workers, guidance counselors and parent coordinators and so has Ingrid Mason at PS/MS 174 in East New York, where 20 percent of students are homeless. Both are particularly vigilant about the children’s sense of self-worth.  The damage is sometimes hidden until revealed in student writing. Genevieve Stanislaus, Principal of Life and Sciences in Manhattan, has discovered in student essays  that families have fallen silently into homelessness, living in church basements  to avoid the shelter system.

As city policies have eroded living wages and affordable housing and given rise to Mayor Bloomberg’s  perverse “tough love” attitude toward the homeless, the punishment has fallen increasingly upon the children. Twenty-two thousand homeless children should leave us with no question that we face a social crisis that may eventually destroy our city unless we stop it. Stopping it includes standing tall for the schools that provide the young homeless with their only real community.  New York City’s incoming administration signals that it will end the habit of inadvertently judging schools by the disadvantage into which their students were born. It is urgent that we hold them to that and to curtailing the data mania that has allowed the city to slash school budgets based on artificial formulas and to bloat the importance of tests. It is even more urgent to curtail school closures, which frequently cause more damage to already fragile students and give them nothing better in exchange.

My hope is that strengthening instead of eliminating these schools will become the rule of the day, now that the invisible child named Dasani has shined the brightest light on the sanctuary that schools can be.