When schools in New York City abruptly closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Prince, a bright, chatty 9-year-old bursting with kinetic energy, found himself at home plodding through the Google Classroom app on his mother’s phone. The limbo that came with the shutdown was not a new experience for him. He and his mother, Fifi, who is 29, had been homeless for nearly his entire academic career. (To protect their privacy, their personal nicknames are being used to refer to Fifi and Prince.)
He had attended five different elementary schools and missed many weeks of classes by the time the city’s schools went online-only. Like many of New York City’s more than 100,000 homeless schoolchildren, Prince was familiar with uncertainty and isolation, with not knowing what day it was. For nearly all his life, he had lived under the curfew imposed by homeless shelters, with no visitors or play dates allowed at his home, and had adapted to long, endless waits at city agencies. Quarantine had coincidentally found him better situated than he had ever been: For the first time in Prince’s memory, his family had a precarious hold on a rental apartment in the Bronx.
Since Prince was little, teachers have been telling Fifi that with the right challenges and encouragement, he has enormous academic potential. Before the pandemic, Fifi had been looking for bigger academic opportunities for Prince, researching charter schools and gifted programs. All that was now on hold. It was disappointing for both of them that Prince was not really learning anything as they tried to peck through screens, but they’d been there before.
When I first met Prince, on a Thursday in March 2019, he had also been trying to keep up with school from his mother’s tiny phone screen. His second-grade class was working on a new unit; there would be a big test the following week. Math was Prince’s favorite subject, and he wanted to do well on the test. When he brought home A’s, his mother would buy him a new toy. Prince almost always delivered the grades. It wasn’t hard; he genuinely loved school. The teachers at his elementary school in East Harlem were kind; there was a free after-school soccer program on Mondays, and the class took trips to parts of the city he’d never seen. Prince enrolled in that school just five months earlier but had been absorbed into a group of friends and the rhythms of the classroom easily. Prince was well liked, and he knew it; if he arrived too late for school breakfast, he would flash his gap-tooth grin and the cafeteria workers would wave him in to pick up a bagel on his way to class.
But on that March morning in 2019, as his classmates settled into their seats in East Harlem, Prince, dressed in a puffy black coat and jeans that slid down his slim frame, instead skipped up the ramp to the PATH intake center in the Bronx for homeless families. Fifi, who is petite and has shiny brown hair, wore skinny jeans and a cross-body purse. Her boyfriend, Manuel (his middle name), who is 37 and whom Prince called Dad, followed, carrying a backpack cooler full of the family’s important documents and pushing a shopping cart loaded with neatly folded bedding and clothes packed in laundry and garbage bags.
PATH, Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing, is where homeless families in New York City go to apply for shelter, and where they go to reapply if they are initially found ineligible or if they are “logged out” after missing check-in at their shelter for two nights in a row. The number of homeless New Yorkers has risen to the highest point since the Great Depression, and the largest demographic within the homeless population is children. As a result, the number of homeless students has increased nearly 70 percent over the last decade, according to the Department of Education. Over the past two years, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen homeless families with school-age children as they struggled with the often dueling imperatives of finding shelter and keeping their children in school.
Despite making up a majority of the city’s homeless population, homeless families are often not visible in the way single homeless adults can be — if a family is found living on the street, the children can be taken away by Child Protective Services. The people walking into the PATH center on any given day are mostly indistinguishable from those walking to the shopping center a few blocks away. You have to look closely to find the telltale giveaways — a few too many bags, or the little boy I met with his sister and mother on a sunny day dragging a large plastic Paw Patrol umbrella with a hooked handle, a prized possession that he wanted to have with him wherever he ended up next.
New York City is the only place in America that guarantees a universal “right to shelter,” hard fought for by activists over decades in court and granted to men, women and children by 1987. In New York, this right has created a system incomparable to any other in the nation — a sprawling, incoherent megaplex that involves at least six city departments, which sometimes work at odds with one another, and has a presence in hundreds of buildings in the city, offering very different levels of supervision and support.
In order to qualify to be placed in a homeless shelter, a family must document all residences from the previous two years and prove to PATH’s fraud investigators that they cannot return to any of them. And if families become homeless because of domestic violence, as Prince’s originally did, they have to provide each police report and restraining order when they first go to the PATH center. In 2018, only 40 percent of families who applied for shelter at PATH met all the requirements and gained a placement.
At the PATH intake center, Manuel parked the family’s cart in the luggage area. Prince settled into a gray vinyl chair. He would spend most of the next week at the center, along with many other city schoolchildren, watching boards that flashed the number of the next family to be called. Experientially, PATH is like a multilevel Department of Motor Vehicles: Families arrive during the day and move from floor to floor, with long waits on each one, finally ending up on the basement level. From there, they might receive a housing assignment by midnight or later. If they don’t, they’re bused to a temporary overnight placement for some sleep and then bused back as early as 6 the next morning to continue waiting.
It was Fifi’s ardent wish that Prince would manage to put himself on the other side of the city’s divide and end up more like the people she had served as a nanny or in jobs at Whole Foods and food service at the airport. That’s why she offered toys for good grades. She and Manuel showed up together for every parent-teacher conference, checked in with Prince’s teacher at school pickup and often took home the free books that were left in a box at the school entrance to read with Prince at night.
If Prince could have been in school instead of the PATH center that Thursday, Fifi would have found a way, but the city generally requires parents to bring their school-age children to the center for the intake process, regardless of whether they’re missing school. So at the center each day around 3 p.m., when school let out, Fifi logged into Prince’s class app from her phone to download the day’s math lesson. It was the most challenging work of the year, and the two pored over the lesson — subtraction on a number line, addition with regrouping 10s — and reviewed the three pages inked in colored pen over and over as they waited.
Fifi and Prince entered the homeless-shelter system when Prince was a baby and Fifi fled a dangerous situation at home with Prince’s biological father to a temporary shelter for women escaping domestic violence. After Fifi’s time at the domestic-violence shelter ran out, she started looking for a rental apartment for herself and Prince. But working minimum-wage jobs, she was never able to save enough to afford New York City rents, and over the years she and Prince bounced from shelter placement to shelter placement. In 2015, she met Manuel, and they moved to Florida, where they hoped to find better housing and work opportunities. But after about a year and a half of difficulty finding jobs, they came back to New York, and eventually the three of them ended up in a shelter in East Harlem.
In February 2019, Fifi suddenly started to see a relative of Prince’s biological father on the street near the shelter. She and Prince’s father are from a tight-knit community of first-generation Bangladeshi immigrants in Queens, and news often travels fast. She was terrified that if the relative saw her, Prince’s father would find out where she was and would come for them. Over the years, police reports show that when Prince’s father has found Fifi, he has at various times beaten her (slamming her against a wall) and locked her in his apartment. He also kidnapped Prince, when he was a toddler, from a family barbecue, she said. But those events happened a while ago; the restraining orders Fifi took out against him after each one had expired.
Fifi stopped going to her job at Whole Foods to avoid seeing the relative. She asked for a shelter transfer but was told it would take up to six months. On the informal advice of a worker in the East Harlem shelter, Fifi decided to have the family stay away from the shelter for two nights, which would mean they were logged out and officially homeless again.
She and Manuel packed whatever belongings would fit in their shopping cart and the two crates the homeless shelter had previously given them, she said, to protect their food from the shelter’s mice. They left Prince’s math posters, stuffed animals and other belongings, vowing to replace them when they were settled in a new shelter. Prince at this point was used to losing things in moves; the only toy he really missed was a jumbo Nerf gun he got for Christmas one year.
The family walked with their shopping cart to Manuel’s father’s one-bedroom apartment in public housing in East Harlem. It was already overcrowded, with six people staying there. The bathroom had a broken door that would not fully close, and there was mold on the walls. Fifi helped Prince shower in the bathroom for school, but she could not bring herself to use it.
Prince, Fifi and Manuel slept on the floor of the apartment for two nights, but when they went back to the PATH center, they were told that they had not been officially logged out, so they had to spend another two nights on the floor. On Thursday morning, having finally logged themselves out, they hoisted their metal shopping cart up the subway stairs to go to PATH.
Prince had switched schools every time his family’s shelter placement changed, so he had never completed more than one year in any school in New York. That year, he started asking his parents if he would be able to stay with his friends at his school in East Harlem. Fifi was happy with the instruction and the school culture. “I think it is my favorite school of all the ones he went to,” she told me. She was hoping that they would be placed close enough to the school to keep Prince there.
The Department of Homeless Services says it takes into account the neighborhood where the family’s youngest child attends school in its placement, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has made this a policy priority. Nonetheless, according to the 2020 Mayor’s Management Report, only some 50 percent of city shelter placements in 2019 were in the same borough as the youngest child’s home school, a percentage that rose in the first four months of this year to 60 percent. Of the families I spoke to, only one had actually been placed close to their child’s school.
According to the department, this is partly because the vacancy rate in shelters is so low that it is hard to make precise placements. It’s also partly because families fleeing domestic violence are not supposed to be placed in a shelter in the same borough as the abuser; 40 percent of all homeless families have some history of domestic violence.
After some 13 hours at the PATH center that Thursday, Fifi and Manuel received a new shelter placement: Crystal’s Place, a family shelter at 555 Hutchinson River Parkway in the Bronx. As they waited for the Department of Homeless Services van to pick them up, another mother whom Fifi met during the day told her that Crystal’s was a bad place, that it had bedbugs in the rooms and drug dealers out front.
When the van dropped them off around 11 p.m., with Prince sleeping in Manuel’s arms, Fifi took a good look around. The shelter was off a highway. Until 2014, the building had been the Capri Whitestone, a “hot-sheet motel” where patrons paid by the hour. When the Department of Homeless Services turned it into a family shelter, it left up the signs advertising the Capri Whitestone and its 555 Lounge, and people would continue to arrive looking for it, until a local state senator petitioned the department to remove the signs. The next year, according to news reports, the department placed two convicted sex offenders — one who had molested children — at Crystal’s Place. (The department did not respond to a majority of fact-checking requests.)
Fifi didn’t know any of that at the time, but standing on the sidewalk as cars whirred past on the other side of the highway barrier, she saw what looked like drug dealers in front of the entrance, just as the woman at PATH had described. There were few stores except for a strip mall a bit down the highway, and the shelter was 2.2 miles from the subway stop they would need to use to take Prince to and from school every day. She thought about making this walk and crisscrossing the isolated highway, past the cemetery and the Home Depot, twice a day. Bus service to the subway was more than a half-mile away. “I just had a really, really bad feeling,” Fifi told me.
Manuel called his father, and he sent an Uber to get them to the subway, where they rode back to his apartment in East Harlem. The family waited there for another two days to be logged out of Crystal’s Place.
Over the course of 2019, 132,660 people slept in the New York City municipal shelter system; over two-thirds were families, and almost 45,000 were children. Those statistics don’t represent the true number of children without stable homes in the city — children whose families are doubled up at a friend’s house or staying in a cheap motel. In some cases, families who have been denied eligibility for shelter might park their children at a relative’s home or with a babysitter for the night while they sleep on a subway or in a hallway. A federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, requires that public schools ask incoming students about their housing status; at the end of last year, families in New York City reported that 114,000 school-age children met the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness: lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
New York City has the largest public-school system in the nation, with more than 1.1 million students. The number of students who are homeless is larger than the entire school populations of Boston, Indianapolis and Rochester combined. The influx of homeless children into the city school system echoes nationwide trends; the number of homeless students in the United States has increased by 70 percent over the last decade and shows no signs of slowing.
Last year, 43 percent of the city’s homeless students were chronically absent — defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year — compared with 30 percent of students in poverty and 16 percent of students not in poverty. A 2018 audit by the city comptroller’s office found that there was no evidence of outreach efforts to 34 percent of students it surveyed who were chronically absent.
Many homeless children have a hard time simply getting to school, because they are exhausted from sleeping in an apartment with more people than beds, or aren’t able to clean their clothes, or have slept somewhere far from their school, or have to miss school to attend mandatory appointments with their parents. In New York City, families who have not yet been found eligible for shelter receive temporary placements in shelters, often miles from their schools, and are not able to get school bus service until they are found eligible, a process that can take anywhere from 10 days to many months.
Around the country, the increase in student homelessness has gone on for years, mostly under-acknowledged and poorly studied. “Most research on homelessness focuses on single homeless adults,” says Barbara Duffield, director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on homelessness and education. “There is a lack of rigorous research on children who are homeless, their educational outcomes and the long-term implications of childhood homelessness.”
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees tracking of homelessness by something called a point-in-time count, in which it records the number of people on the streets and in shelters on one night. By this method, the department reports that there has been a 29 percent decline in family homelessness over the last 10 years. But families avoid the street, and many cities and rural areas simply don’t have shelters.
The data from schools’ reporting show that nationally, the number of homeless children has gone from more than 650,000 in the 2004-5 school year to more than 1.5 million in 2017-18. State education data released by the National Center for Homeless Education this January found that in that same year, nationally, only 29 percent of homeless students passed state exams in reading and 24 percent in math. In New York City in 2018-19, 29 percent of students in temporary housing passed the state reading exam and 27 percent passed the math exam, according to the New York City Department of Education. Children living in shelters fared worse: In 2015-16, only 15 percent of third-through-eighth-grade students living in one read proficiently, and only 12 percent met state requirements in math.
Homeless students also have higher rates of special needs, partly because of health and developmental factors — poor nutrition, low birth weight, asthma, exposure to lead, stress. Their transience also hinders access to treatment and early intervention, and low-income parents of children with special needs can have a harder time maintaining employment. Federal Department of Education data compiled by the National Center for Homeless Education shows that while children with disabilities made up roughly 14 percent of the overall student population, among homeless students in 2017-18, the average rate in many states was between 18 and 20 percent or higher. Last year, nearly 85 percent of homeless students in New York City were Black or Hispanic; the negative academic impact of homelessness compounds existing inequities in the education system.
Broadly, homeless children across the country tend to get so far behind in their early elementary years that they see no way to catch up and drop out when they are older. Only 62 percent of New York City’s homeless students graduated from high school last year; citywide, the overall graduation rate was 77 percent. Research from Voices of Youth Count at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago showed that failure to graduate from high school or earn an equivalency diploma increased the chances of experiencing homelessness as young adults by 4.5 times. “If you are not reading on time,” Duffield says, “you are more likely to drop out of school, and in fact, children who are homeless have higher dropout rates than other poor children. Not having a high school degree is the single greatest risk factor for future homelessness. Not having access to an education condemns these kids to a life of poverty, homelessness and hardship.”
The shutdowns the pandemic has brought have worsened many of the conditions that drive family homelessness and undermine education. Advocates for homeless families warn that without action, the city is poised for an enormous wave of new homeless families and even more children not able to attend school consistently. According to data compiled by the N.Y.U. Furman Center, whose research focuses on housing, 239,000 very-low-income renter households are at “high risk” of becoming homeless. If they experienced job loss because of the pandemic, they’re currently protected by an eviction moratorium, which has been extended to the end of the year, but they are most likely amassing unpaid back rent. A coalition of organizations has urged city lawmakers to plan for the likelihood that when the moratorium lifts, these households will still be unemployed and will start entering the shelter system. Christine C. Quinn, the former City Council speaker who is now the president and chief executive of Win, formerly Women in Need, which runs 11 family shelters in the city, told me: “Even if a small fraction come, the system, which was already at capacity on the family side, will be swamped. If we don’t intervene before the eviction moratorium expires, we will have a catastrophe in New York City.”
Prince returned with his parents to the PATH center on Monday morning, after another two days of waiting to be logged out. Again Prince missed school, and again they spent the entire day shuffling between floors waiting for placement in a shelter. That night around 11, in the rain, the family boarded the Department of Homeless Services van to the Pan American, another former hotel on Queens Boulevard near city impound lots. Fifi’s case file indicates that she can’t be placed in Queens because that’s where her abuser and his large extended family live. But by the time the placement came, Fifi was too exhausted to protest.
At the Pan American, the security guard warmed up a frozen pizza from the cafeteria for them and took them to a room that Fifi said had filthy carpets and packing tape holding the door to the next room shut. She got up at 6 a.m. after a sleepless night “freaking out,” she said, and the family took the long subway ride back to the PATH center. This time they headed straight for the floor with the domestic-violence office. “You can’t put me in Queens,” Fifi, in tears, said when her number was called. “My file says so.”
As their third day at PATH wore on, Prince could not stomach the food he’d had in the past at PATH — a still-frozen bologna sandwich and a small cup of warm juice with a foil lid, which “tasted like medicine.” He focused all his boredom and frustration on this matter. “Mommy, can you get me something to eat?” he pleaded and whined over and over as the day passed. “Mommy, please, can you get me something to eat?”
Although PATH serves only families with children, it is organized in a way that makes astonishingly little accommodation for that fact. The vans, which transport families, appear to have no car or booster seats and seem to operate primarily at hours that are far past any child’s bedtime. Endless waiting with an unpredictable outcome in a space that does not allow food or drinks to be brought in and doesn’t provide toys or books is especially agonizing for small children and those with special needs. When families make it down to the bottom level of the center, some take a chance with letting their children run just outside the exit door to burn off some steam. One day near that door, I met Caledra, who had also become homeless fleeing a violent partner and whose seven children were squealing and dashing around a garbage can. She said: “We were all at PATH less than eight months ago. I’m not sure why they still need me to bring all seven kids back for the whole day.” She shrugged, laughing ruefully. “Who lies about having seven kids, anyway?”
By midafternoon, Fifi realized that the last thing Prince had eaten was the frozen pizza they were given when they arrived at the Pan American at midnight. She knew that if they left the PATH center to get food, they would risk losing their place in line, but she decided it was worth the gamble. The family ran down the street in the light rain to McDonald’s and bought a 20-piece box of McNuggets. Then, thinking about the many children also waiting and whining, Fifi used a coupon from her McDonald’s phone app to get a second box of 20 McNuggets for just a dollar more. Fifi put the boxes in her purse, and the family raced back up the block to the center. But the security guard at the entrance took the warm boxes out of her purse and told her she had to throw them away. She took a few McNuggets out of the box and hastily tried to feed them to Prince outside. She brushed away tears angrily. “He’s a baby,” she said. “He can’t eat prison food.” Prince didn’t cry, and he stopped whining about being hungry. He just got, in his words, “really mad and really quiet” for the rest of the day. “I never know what he’s absorbing about our situation, what’s bothering him,” Fifi later told me. “Sometimes he will bring up something that happened months earlier, and I realize, Whoa, he’s been thinking of it all this time.”
That night, around midnight, the Department of Homeless Services van took the family to a new placement in the Bronx. It was a cluster apartment — a building, often rundown, that the city rents from landlords. They were overjoyed. True, someone had scrawled “shelter people are pigs” in the elevator, and an addict could sometimes be found rocking himself trancelike in the stairwell, and a piece of the bathroom ceiling was coming down. But the family happily agreed that it was the nicest place they had lived so far. For one thing, there was a bedroom, where they set up Prince’s books and toys, careful to not use the dresser that came with the room for fear of bedbugs. They draped a Mickey Mouse blanket over the leaky window in his room to insulate against the cold and try to block the sound of the subway thundering past on elevated tracks nearby. The kitchen was basic, but “it’s not completely disgusting,” Fifi reported happily. “You could cook in that oven.” Prince skipped across the living-room area, where Fifi and Manuel slept on twin beds pushed together, to show me how big it was. “See? I can run from this side to the other,” he told me, hamming it up, and added, “There are no rats under the heater!” The subway outside Prince’s room went directly to his school, and the neighborhood had the stores and laundromat the family would need.
When Prince returned to school on Tuesday morning, two weeks after he left, his teacher asked where he had been for so long. “We were moving,” Prince reported. The teacher, who didn’t know at the time that the family was homeless, found it odd. “In my mind, I had never heard of it taking that long to move, and I wondered, Why didn’t the parents bring him to school while they moved?” she told me.
Not long after Prince returned to school was the big math test he had been anticipating. His teacher told him he didn’t have to take it if he didn’t want to because he had missed the last unit. But Prince and Fifi had been practicing the math sheets on the class app at the PATH center, and she wanted Prince to take the test. “In a way, I wanted to see — is he still OK from this week?” Fifi told me. “How much is he affected?” When the results came back, Prince scored an 84, lower than his usual top grades. He knew that his mother wanted to see higher scores. When he turned over the test to Fifi, he said in a small voice: “I’m sorry, Mama. I’ll do better next time.”
Family homelessness in New York City at the current scale is a phenomenon of the last several decades. For many years, the city population of homeless families hovered between 250 and 1,000 a year. In the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a recession coincided with deep cuts in social-service programs like job training, day care and aid for dependent children. Perhaps most significant, Reagan greatly reduced the budget for public housing and Section 8 housing, a voucher program that subsidizes rent; between 1981 and 1989, budget authorizations for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is responsible for low-income housing, fell to $6.9 billion from $32.2 billion. In 1970, there were 6.5 million subsidized rental units and 6.2 million low-income renter households; by 1985, there were 5.6 million units and 8.9 million low-income renter households.
During this period, families in New York started showing up in unexpectedly large numbers at Emergency Assistance Units in each borough, which were the precursors to PATH. Ralph da Costa Nunez served as deputy commissioner of social services 40 years ago, when Ed Koch was mayor. He remembers that when the population of homeless families went from 950 in 1982 to more than 5,000 in 1988, he and Koch at first thought it was a temporary bump. But as the years dragged on, it became clear that stagnating wages, cuts to public programs and a lack of affordable housing had permanently dislodged a segment of low-income earners from the housing market.
Homeless families slept on metal cots in gyms and auditoriums, in wards at the Bellevue psychiatric hospital and in “welfare hotels” with deplorable conditions. During his tenure, Koch announced a 10-year plan to create 150,000 affordable-housing units, later revising this to 252,000 units, and to allocate 15,000 of them to homeless households. He also began developing shelters for families, which were assumed at the time to be an interim measure. When Mayor David Dinkins took office in 1990, he added social services to family shelters and continued to offer priority for public housing to homeless families. The homeless-family population grew, and a theory developed among some policy experts that the practice of offering homeless families priority placement in affordable housing provided incentives for people to enter the shelter system; this theory was later refuted. But when Rudolph W. Giuliani became mayor, he sought to discourage people from entering the shelter system. Although Giuliani continued the practice of placing shelter residents in public housing and in Section 8 housing, he did not invest in shelter infrastructure and made it harder to apply for placement. He started the cluster-site program in 2000, paying market rates to landlords of apartments that were often of poor quality to house homeless people with little oversight.
Michael R. Bloomberg came into office with a pledge to cut homelessness by two-thirds. He initially stopped offering homeless families priority placement for public housing and Section 8 programs and established a rental subsidy called the Advantage program, and at first the homeless population dropped. Advocates for the homeless were critical of the program’s work requirements and temporary nature and lobbied against it; Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo withdrew funding, and the program ended in 2011. As a result, tens of thousands of families were evicted. During Bloomberg’s tenure, the shelter population grew from 37,000 in 2010 to nearly 61,000 by the end of 2014, 70 percent of whom were families.
When de Blasio was elected, he walked into a storm. He had campaigned on reducing income inequality and had promised to lower the homeless population. He initially instituted anti-eviction measures and rental subsidies, which moved many people out of shelters but couldn’t stop the flow of others into the homeless system. In 2017, de Blasio unveiled a second plan, Turning the Tide on Homelessness, to invest in shelter infrastructure, reduce the reliance on hotels and cluster housing and mitigate some of the worst impacts of family homelessness. The plan calls for the construction of 90 shelters, including family shelters, 39 of which have opened, according to the Department of Homeless Services. These shelters have social-service providers and offer things like after-school programs. They are unusual in that they are in neighborhoods that have never had shelters; the hope is that by increasing capacity, more families can be placed near “anchors of life,” especially schools.
Today, no one imagines that family homelessness in New York City is a temporary emergency; it is a tacitly accepted part of the picture of what it means to be poor here. According to an analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, New York and its surrounding metro area currently has 950,673 extremely-low-income renter households; the number of units for such households is 321,000. Even if the goals of Turning the Tide are met, the city will still have a population of some 57,500 homeless individuals, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a nonprofit research-and-advocacy organization. Last year, the city spent roughly $3.2 billion on homeless services, more than double what it spent in 2014, according to a comptroller report. The average length of stay in a shelter is 474 days.
Steven Banks, one of the original Legal Aid Society lawyers who went to court to fight for a right to shelter, is the city commissioner of social services and oversees the Department of Homeless Services. Banks told me that the right to shelter has “transformed lives” in New York City, and he also pointed to Los Angeles, where many more homeless people live in unsheltered situations. But, he said, if he could have brought the case as a right to housing in addition to shelter, he would have. “Temporary versus permanent housing and other resources is equivalent to having a debate in the health care sector over funding emergency rooms or just preventative medicine,” he said. “Of course you need both.”
Nunez, who is now the president and chief executive of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, says that “after years and years of growing the shelter system, it’s time to call it what it really is: a surrogate for affordable housing.” But unlike the affordable-housing programs of the past — rent-regulated apartments, federally funded Section 8 vouchers — the shelter system is, in Nunez’s words, “creating a whole class of poverty nomads, a generation that is getting accustomed to nomadism.”
The consequences of this nomadism go beyond education. The norms at many homeless shelters can be jail-like and put a heavy social burden on children. Families are not allowed to have any visitors in their rooms and have to be present at nightly curfew. They must sign in and out every time they come and go. Some families told me that they were not allowed to bring in furniture, including air-conditioners, microwave ovens, TVs or a mini-trampoline if an autistic child requires one to calm herself. I was also told by residents at various shelters that nail clippers, scooters and flip-flops were forbidden. And some families said that shelter personnel used the threat of calling Child Protective Services as a way to enforce their rules.
One afternoon in September 2018, after school let out, I met Angel, who was from a Puerto Rican family and was 17 at the time. He was wearing Vans and earrings. He, his mother and his little brother, RJ, had been evicted from their Bronx apartment in December 2017 and were living in a family shelter in Brooklyn. (To protect their privacy, only their first names are being used.) RJ had switched to the school near their shelter, but Angel was old enough to make the daily three-subway commute back to the Bronx to continue at his high school. After school, Angel said, his friends would go home, have a snack and play video games, talking on their headsets, until they met up later.
Angel wanted to stay in the Bronx to play basketball with his friends when they went out later. So he would walk around the neighborhood near school, killing time, maybe stopping at his grandmother’s house before her shift as a subway conductor began. “I just wait for someone to text me where they decided to meet up,” he explained as we sat on a bench near the subway stop in the Bronx. Angel ate a foot-long marinara sub and drank a blue Gatorade. The move had taken an academic toll — Angel said that there was no desk or comfortable place to do homework in the shelter and that he had fallen off the honor roll — but there was also a social toll. “People always ask why I have to go home so early, why I never stay over,” he told me.
Angel was stoic when he told me about a pool party that he couldn’t go to because of the shelter curfew. But he became agitated describing a weekend morning when his mother let him sleep in while she took RJ to football practice in the Bronx. “A shelter supervisor came out, and she screamed at my mother in front of everyone that they’re going to call C.P.S. if she ever leaves me sleeping in the room again,” he said, his face seared with shame. “I didn’t mind that I will now have to get up at 7 a.m. on a weekend, but I minded a lot that they yelled at my mother in front of everyone. They made her cry. They threatened her.”
In April 2019, the family was able to move to a shelter back in the Bronx, where RJ, who was 8 at the time, started his third school in 18 months. RJ, who has chubby cheeks and soft black hair, showed me a swimming pool at a nearby housing project and excitedly said his mother had promised to teach him to swim there. Then he paused and added the qualification: “If we still live here in the summer.” (They did not live there by summer.)
Over a snack at McDonald’s, I asked RJ, who was repeating first grade, if students in his newest class knew that he was homeless. He looked at me as though I were crazy. “I don’t tell anyone I’m homeless,” RJ said. “Everyone else has a house or an apartment.” His mother pointed out to him that another child in his class also lived in the shelter, a fact they discovered one afternoon when the boys returned from school at the same time. I asked RJ if he played with his classmate at the shelter, and he again looked at me with utter bafflement. “No one can come in your room, not even your cousins,” he said. “And if we played in the hallway, the security would yell.”
One Thursday in May 2019, I waited with a father named Allen on a street corner in South Brooklyn, near the homeless shelter where he lived. He was waiting for the school bus carrying his first-grade daughter, London. (To protect their privacy, Allen and London are identified by their middle names.) She was coming home from her school in Queens, where she had enrolled when they lived in a shelter there. The driver had said the bus would arrive at 3:30. Though the bus was often late, Allen had to leave work early and be there just in case; if he missed the bus, he worried that he might be reported to Child Protective Services.
Allen, who is Black, is tall and wears a baseball cap slightly cocked to the side and holds a steady, gentle gaze. He is 32 and works for a city agency as a mentor for young fathers in the foster-care system. He told me that he spent time in the foster-care system as a child and served time as a minor for selling drugs. He got his high school equivalency diploma while incarcerated on Rikers Island, and some years after he was released, London was born. She lived with her mother, but when she turned 2, Allen said, her mother told him she could no longer take care of her. Allen, who had been living on Long Island, didn’t have a suitable apartment for London to move into. He entered the New York City shelter system, he said, and the city later placed him in an apartment in the Bronx and paid the moving costs. Allen leaned into parenting London; he fusses over her, worrying that she looks messy if he can’t take her to his aunt’s to get her hair braided, and he special-ordered a “Little Mermaid” birthday cake she wanted.
That Thursday, hours passed, and still no bus arrived. Allen went back to his shelter room for a while, where he could watch for the bus through the window. At 6 p.m., London’s bus finally pulled up. Allen said to the driver, “Man, does this look like 3:30?” The driver shrugged. “I forgot two kids,” he said. “I had to go back.”
Allen climbed the steps. London, who had now been riding on the yellow school bus long enough to have gotten halfway across Delaware, made no move to get off. She sat on the brown vinyl-covered bench, stupefied, the contents of her bag scattered through the bus. “Aw, your stuff is everywhere,” Allen said as he scooped up her pink flowered coat and an I Can Read book and put them into her Inside Out backpack.
Allen took London’s hand as they walked down the street. She looked completely zoned out. Halfway down the block, she bit her father’s arm through his leather coat sleeve, and something about the contact and his reaction seemed to help her reoccupy her body. She started debriefing him about her day. “My teacher said I am a reader!” she said, adding that she was given a new Disney book.
Ever since they had been transferred to this South Brooklyn shelter, the bus ride often took this long, Allen told me. For the first few weeks, London would sometimes wet her pants on the bus or sprint down the street to try to make it to the bathroom, he said.
Allen and London became homeless after they were evicted from the Bronx apartment in the summer of 2017, where they had been living for two years with two cats, one of whom was named Percy for the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series. London had gone to prekindergarten at a nearby school, where a teacher suggested that she might apply for a gifted program. London had been notably ahead of her peers for a while, Allen said. At age 2, she knew all her colors, senses and numbers and spoke in full nontoddler sentences. “Other kids in her preschool were barely talking,” Allen remembered proudly.
But Allen could not keep up with the rent on his salary. “I couldn’t buy her clothes, shoes, food and also cover it,” he said of the rent grimly. When they were evicted, they were placed at the shelter in Queens, and Allen enrolled London in kindergarten at the zoned school up the block from the shelter.
One day at the Queens shelter, Allen told me, he left London alone in their room and walked to the room next door to speak to someone. London wandered out into the hall, and Allen said a shelter staff member reported him to Child Protective Services for negligence. London was placed in foster care for 90 days while he attended mandated parenting classes. During that time, Allen went to a shelter for single men in Brooklyn, and London’s foster family enrolled her in a different school in Queens that was close to their house.
After three months, when the two were reunited, they were placed in a family shelter in Brooklyn. London had to take a 90-minute school-bus ride to and from her school in Queens each day, but it was workable.
Then, during first grade in December 2018, the city announced that the family shelter in Brooklyn where Allen and London lived would be converted into a men’s shelter, so they were transferred to a shelter even farther from London’s school. The commute would take an hour to drive, but it is 2½ hours by mass transit on a good day, and the city did not immediately provide school-bus service. London missed two weeks of first grade waiting for the school bus to show up at her new shelter. When it finally did, it was a disaster.
Although Allen woke London at 5 a.m. so the school bus could take her to Queens, it often dropped her off at school an hour late, and she would miss her first period. Her teacher sent home the lessons London missed for Allen to review with her. But the bus ride home was even worse, often taking three hours. By the time she got home, did homework, ate dinner and showered, the work from first period was not getting done. “It’s piled so high,” Allen told me that Thursday in the spring of 2019. “I don’t know when we will do it.”
Allen was then faced with the choice that nearly every homeless family I’d met agonized over: whether to continue to unpredictably uproot their children from school every time they moved or endure the brutal commute. “I like the teacher, I like the principal, I like the school,” he told me. “I didn’t want to keep switching her. I like that she has all these friends.”
Allen understood the dangers of switching schools. “Every time she changes schools, she loses time — the teachers don’t know her, she doesn’t know them and she falls more and more behind,” he said. She started kindergarten ahead of grade level, he added, “and I just got a letter that this year she may be held back.”
Allen’s experience is borne out by most research about midyear transfers, which shows that these changes usually cause academic setbacks for children. There was a school down the street from his Brooklyn shelter. “But what if I start her there and we get transferred again?” Allen asked, pained. “She makes friends, leaves them, makes friends, leaves them. It’s not good. I don’t want her to be a loner.”
Before the start of second grade in September 2019, Allen knew he couldn’t sustain the lost hours of work and London’s missed first periods any longer, so he did enroll her in the school down the block from their Brooklyn shelter. Then, in December, he got off the waiting list for public housing, and he and London moved to a building in Harlem. He used the furniture allowance he was given to take London to her Brooklyn school in cabs for weeks, until the bus came to Harlem. He managed to buy London a nice bed, but he sleeps on a mattress pad on the floor and the apartment is mostly unfurnished.
For two weeks after the schools closed down in March because of the coronavirus, Allen had to report to work in Midtown Manhattan. He hired a babysitter to stay home with London and fell behind on rent. Starting in April, Allen was able to work from home on a computer while London tried to do assignments on the iPad she received through the Department of Education. London had only one live online class a week on Friday. The rest of the time, a feed on Google Classroom would bring up new assignments. Allen tried to get London to write them out in a notebook. At first, she would work until noon, but as time went on, she became less and less engaged with the new assignments. “It seems like she can’t even read anymore,” Allen told me in May. “It’s really bad. She’s moving backward. I’ve seen her watch YouTube 24 hours a day. I have to find a way to get her back on track.”
Nearly 40 years after the city was first caught off guard by the influx of homeless families, the system for placing them is still unpredictable and haphazard. A family may be placed in one of the new Turning the Tide facilities with better resources. More likely, though, they will be sent somewhere like Crystal’s Place or Baychester, a former motel that is across the street from a live poultry market in the Bronx and looks as though it were pilfered from the set of “The Munsters.” Families can be placed in cluster housing. And they are also sent to commercial hotels, where they live, at great expense to the city, often without a kitchen, far from amenities most families need, trying not to advertise their presence to the paying guests. Of course, plenty of guests figure it out; in a review of the Skyline Hotel, a midrange hotel on 10th Avenue in Manhattan, one traveler complained on TripAdvisor about “men in the lift with reheated microwave meals” and noted “children coming back to the hotel in uniforms.”
The Department of Homeless Services has paid as much as $549 a night to rent hotel rooms and has also housed families at hotels that were being used for sex work and were troubled by violence. In 2018, the city’s Department of Investigation published a report showing that from January to August of the previous year, 59 prostitution-related arrests and 34 assault-related arrests had been made at 34 of the city’s 57 commercial hotels housing homeless families with children.
One night outside the PATH intake center in the Bronx in April 2019, I met a mother, Elizabeth, pushing a double stroller with two babies and trying to reassure her sixth grader, who attended a charter school in the Bronx, that their placement in a hotel in Flushing, Queens, would be fine. “It won’t be as bad as Rockaway was,” she said to him reassuringly as he stomped his foot, upset. When she turned away from her son, the gentleness dropped from her voice, and she burned with frustration and panic, describing the impossible logistics of this placement. She began to cry and told me that she couldn’t get upset in front of her son; we would have to talk later.
Elizabeth texted me the number of her room at the Prince Flushing Hotel, a small, boxy new building on a block with Chinese restaurants. As the Department of Homeless Services van transported her and her children to the hotel, I took a car to meet her. When I arrived, I told the desk clerk that I wanted to visit Room 505. He looked bewildered. “Uh, the fifth floor is not part of the hotel,” he said, although of course the fifth floor was part of the hotel, stacked right on top of the third and fourth floors. He was adamant that no visitors could go to the fifth floor. He said the hotel was sold out that night, so I booked a room for the next night on Booking.com. The next day, I checked into my room on the second floor and rode the elevator to the fifth floor in the hopes of talking to Elizabeth. But by then, she had decided to move back in with relatives in an apartment closer to her children’s school and child care.
I stayed at the hotel anyway. In the elevator, I chatted with a tourist toting her pink, flowered N.Y.C. souvenir backpack. At the breakfast area for guests, I got a cup of coffee next to a hotel guest on his laptop and then walked maybe 30 feet down the hallway, where the Department of Homeless Services quietly admitted homeless families and handed out meals that could be microwaved in rooms, away from the guests.
I identified myself as a reporter and asked if I could speak with someone. The social-service worker looked flummoxed. Journalists are generally not allowed in department shelters or the PATH center. She phoned someone who seemed to oversee the area’s hotels. A few minutes later, that person charged in, reprimanded me for trespassing and demanded that I leave the property. I explained that I had paid for a room in the hotel, and then no one knew what to do.
P.S. 401, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, is the zoned school for two large homeless shelters, which house over 400 families. The backs of the shelters face a rail line. Nearby is a scrap-metal facility and a recycling center piled with mountains of bags filled with plastic bottles. Of the 338 students who attended P.S. 401 during the 2018-19 school year, 104 lived in temporary housing. Eighty-nine were in homeless shelters, and 15 were doubled up. In one kindergarten class, three-quarters of the students were homeless. More than half of P.S. 401’s students were chronically absent.
Homeless students attend all but a dozen of New York City’s 1,600 noncharter public schools, but they are much more highly concentrated in schools in high-poverty areas like Brownsville; according to Advocates for Children of New York, during the 2018-19 school year, there were three other city districts where at least one in five students were homeless. Schools have traditionally been organized around place, parish, zone. Now that roughly one-tenth of city students are untethered to a place, in the last few years the de Blasio administration and the Department of Education, under Chancellor Richard Carranza, have made efforts to focus on homeless students. The department formally placed responsibility for students in temporary housing with two upper-level officials: Chris Caruso, senior executive director of the Office of Community Schools, which helps underserved students and tries to improve attendance, and LaShawn Robinson, the deputy chancellor for school climate and wellness. They have increased the number of regional managers and community coordinators to help homeless students, and over the past year, they have spent $15 million to, among other things, hire more than 100 “Bridging the Gap” social workers to aid the unstably housed student population.
At P.S. 401, Shondelle Wilson, a social worker, was appointed to care for the unstably housed children, and Reginald LeRouge was brought on to coordinate efforts for students in temporary housing. I visited the school twice in June 2019. When I first met Wilson, she told me: “These children have so much weight on them. Children understand. We don’t give them credit for how well they know their circumstances.”
Every morning, Wilson, LeRouge and the principal, Deon Mitchell, began their day in the cinder-block cafeteria with yellow painted radiators, where many of the children ate the free breakfast provided by the city. They assessed how the children were — who was too tired or too stressed to go directly into the classroom — and set the tone for the day. During breakfast, they oriented the children about what day and month it was, because they said children who switch schools a lot and miss days sometimes lose the narrative thread.
One morning I joined the team before breakfast began. The children were coming back after a one-day holiday. Wilson wore a belted dress and flat sandals, and her hair was arranged in a regal swirl atop her head. She took a deep breath before she entered the auditorium, where children who arrive early, before breakfast is served, wait. A second grader whose hair was threaded with beads sidled up to her. “This is my beauty,” Wilson told me. The girl smiled delightedly. “Are you looking for a hug?” Wilson asked. The girl nodded yes. Wilson squeezed her to her side and told her she would check in when she had breakfast.
Wilson then entered the cafeteria, where workers were handing out pancakes, cereal and previously frozen omelets in perfect semicircles. She tried to make contact with each of the unstably housed children at breakfast, except for the kindergartners, whom she connects with at lunch. They were bobbing and squirming at their table, all chipmunk cheeks, glitter headbands and braids. She waved to them. “That’s my kindergarten class,” she told me. “Some of those kids are so smart,” she added proudly and a little wistfully.
Wilson approached two boys with their heads lying on their crossed arms, not eating breakfast. “Good morning, brothers. You had a day off. Did you do anything?” One brother shook his head no. “Are you tired today?” They nodded. “Come, walk with Ms. Wilson. We are going to get some water to splash on your face, and we are going to have a great day today.”
Wilson returned to the second grader with the beads in her hair and sat next to her. “Good morning. How was your day off?”
“I did a lot of things. My mom made me lunch, and I had strawberries on Oreo ice cream, and I played with slime.”
She paused and added, “I was excited to come back today so I can have a new start with what we talked about.”
“Oooooh,” Wilson beamed. Then she asked, “What did we talk about?”
“The relaxation response for when I get anxious and upset,” the girl said solemnly.
The second grader transferred to P.S. 401 in October 2018, before Wilson started working there, and for a while she was known only as a very smart, very competitive student who got high grades. Then one day in November, she got into a disagreement with a student in her class. The teacher asked her to step outside to defuse the situation and told her that she would come out and speak to her in a moment.
Out in the hallway, the girl let out a piercing scream and pulled a bulletin board down with a huge crash. She ran through the halls, yelling, throwing things and tearing down bulletin boards. Security guards intervened. It took Mitchell, the principal, a full half-hour to calm her down. Mitchell said she had to take off her high heels and was sweating from the physical effort of it.
Wilson and Mitchell didn’t know under what circumstances the girl moved to one of the nearby shelters, and they didn’t know much about where she was before. Wilson told me: “What I do know is she doesn’t like to feel a sense of loss and can’t handle disappointment. And I know that as soon as she de-escalates from her anger, she apologizes and asks: ‘Are you still proud of me? Do you still love me?’ and wants to be held.”
Earlier that week, the girl was playing musical chairs in the gym. When the music stopped and she lost her chair, she got angry and started screaming and hyperventilating. But she was able to use some breathing techniques that Wilson had taught her and calmed down within minutes. “The whole episode was very short,” Mitchell said. “It was a massive improvement from the fall, when it took all hands in the building to manage her.”
The girl had told Wilson that she prays at night that Wilson will remain at P.S. 401. That morning in the cafeteria, she looked at me, following Wilson and holding my notepad, and then back at Wilson. She asked Wilson in a panicked tone, “Are you leaving?!” She thought I might be training to take over Wilson’s job. The girl was also the only child in the school who remembered Mitchell’s birthday — she gave her a Little Debbie Honey Bun and a $1 bill.
When most of the students had finished breakfast, Mitchell headed to the front of the cafeteria with an air of gravitas. She reminded the children: “We are in the homestretch of the year. Let’s end strong. We are at the finish line. It’s been a while since we sent a strong, loud message to everyone in Brownsville: Everyone needs to wake up to what we are!”
A group of older girls started pounding on hand drums, and the cafeteria came to life chanting: “We are 401! Our school is on the rise, working hard to win the race! No time for nonsense! No time to waste!”
Mitchell implored the students to repeat after her: “Say: ‘I am great! Nothing can stop me from my greatness!’” The girl with the beaded hair screamed back at the top of her lungs, eyes shining happily.
After breakfast, Reginald LeRouge, the coordinator, went upstairs to a room where he reviews attendance records for the day. The office was filled with boxes of phonics books, and an old lavender-color rotary phone hung on one wall. LeRouge was wearing a red polo, khakis and boat shoes. He made his first call to a family at one of the shelters down the street and offered to walk down the block and take the child to school if the parent could meet him halfway. “You can still make it — we can change attendance before 11,” he said hopefully.
Around 10 a.m., a school aide brought in a boy who looked to be about 9 or 10, with messy hair, who had arrived at school late and then acted out in class. “What can we do better?” LeRouge asked. “You were not only late today; you also got yourself kicked out of class two times.”
While the boy was there, LeRouge tried to follow up on his nearly two dozen absences. LeRouge had previously gone to the Brooklyn shelter that was listed as the boy’s home address to speak with his parents, only to find that the family had been moved to a shelter in the Bronx.
“Why weren’t you here Monday?” he asked the boy, who looked at him blankly. “What happened the day before yesterday?” LeRouge asked again. “I had to go with my uncle to get eye surgery,” he said. “Your sister was not here either,” LeRouge said. “Yeah, she helped him walk because he couldn’t see with his eye.”
“Attendance is really important,” LeRouge said. “You have to be here every day. Did the surgery take all day?”
“No, it took 15 minutes,” he replied. “But I couldn’t come to school after because the doctor was all the way in the Bronx.”
“Even if you want to help a special person in your life, you can come to school after, OK?” LeRouge told him.
After LeRouge entered the day’s attendance data, he did a circuit through the halls, checking in with students who had missed school recently.
Children in the hallway also came to him looking for a hug, just as they did with Wilson; he tried to redirect them to fist bumps. “Acknowledgment is huge in this school, huge,” he told me.
LeRouge peeked in on the kindergarten class where three-quarters of the students were homeless and found a girl sitting apart from her classmates looking morose. He asked her to come out to the hallway, crouched down and addressed her gently. “I came to see how you are doing,” he said. “You weren’t here on Monday. Do you know why you weren’t here?” The girl rubbed her eyes and shook her head no. “Are you OK?” LeRouge asked. She shook her head no. “Did you eat today?” The girl looked blankly at him. “OK,” LeRouge said uncertainly. “I’ll be back in a little to check in with you.” He sent her back to her classroom.
His next stop was to follow up with a fifth-grade boy, a twin who had lived in one of the local family shelters for five years, to find out why he most recently missed school. LeRouge tried to keep it light. The boy was a Stephen Curry fan, and LeRouge had bought a Curry jersey, which he kept in his office. He had told the boy that if he came to school for one full week at any point that year — five consecutive days — he would give the jersey to him. But so far, the boy had not been able to earn the jersey. LeRouge told the boy: “I want this jersey out of my office before the year ends. I’m not a Golden State fan!”
P.S. 401 shares a building with a K-8 charter school, Leadership Prep Ocean Hill, which has higher test scores than P.S. 401. It also has far fewer homeless students enrolled, despite its identical proximity to the shelters. About one in 10 students at Ocean Hill are homeless, compared with more than one in four at P.S. 401. Mitchell told me that sometimes P.S. 401’s more stable families transfer their children upstairs, where they are better shielded from the challenges that the very poorest and most transient students bring.
Mitchell, whom I had mostly seen imploring children to chant that nothing can stop them, suddenly seemed weary. Speaking of the kindergarten class in which three-quarters of the students were unstably housed, she said: “We’ve been working so hard to prepare them for the first grade, and I would love to keep them. Will I have them in September? No. I will have a totally new crop of children. We have no ability to transfer what we are working so hard to do, because we are starting over every year with a completely new group of students.”
When the pandemic closed schools, Mitchell went to the two shelters that are zoned for P.S. 401 and run by Win to hand out gift cards for groceries. At first, that second-grade girl didn’t show up online, and Mitchell worked with shelter employees to help her get connected. The challenges of “at home” learning for the city’s many children without a home have worried advocates for homeless children since March, when they unsuccessfully campaigned to get access for all homeless students to regional enrichment centers set up by the city for children of essential workers.
A national survey of 600 public-school teachers conducted in May by Educators for Excellence about the effects of school shutdowns on their students found that only 21 percent of teachers said homeless students’ needs were often met. The New York City Department of Education has not released information about engagement in online learning for students in temporary housing. In May, I spoke to Chris Caruso, the Office of Community Schools senior executive director, and he would tell me only that the average rate of interaction for all students in the city was 88 percent (a number the Department of Education later updated to 86 percent), which can mean just a single interaction each day. “We have a caring adult checking in with students who are living in homeless shelters,” he said, “connecting with these students around access to technology.”
Christine Quinn, Win’s president, said her shelters set up informal centers where children of essential workers could do their remote learning while their parents worked. Over all, she said, the city’s approach to homeless students during the pandemic has been “nothing but broken promises.” She noted that this summer, when many struggling students were to be enrolled in summer school and when schools that serve children with severe disabilities have a six-week session, Department of Education iPads could not access the internet; a new login was required. “There was no coordination with D.H.S.,” she said, “so none of us knew this was happening. The staff was trying to figure out how to get students back online. The D.O.E. said, ‘We forgot to notify people about this change.’ They’ve been nothing but Keystone Kops as it relates to homeless kids doing virtual learning.”
The challenges that homeless students face with remote learning are one reason de Blasio has advocated a partial reopening of schools. He said in a statement forwarded by a Department of Education spokeswoman: “These kids were top of my mind the entire time our city was debating school reopening. We had to do it for them.” He continued: “We can’t operate out of a place of fear when it could mean everything for a child who has little to nothing. That’s the reality. We owe it to them to do better.”
In August, roughly 30 organizations that work with homeless children and families wrote a letter urging de Blasio to offer in-person instruction to homeless children or give them access to a space where they can get support with remote learning, as well as provide transportation. The letter noted that shelter rules prohibit leaving even older children in shelters during the day while parents work and that more than half of families are placed in a shelter in a different borough from their youngest child’s school.
At the end of August, Randi Levine, the policy director of Advocates for Children of New York, expressed disbelief about the lack of planning for homeless students. “It’s shocking how little is in place for students in shelter,” she wrote in an email. “Many are starting the school year with no internet for remote learning, no bus to get to school and no child care for days when their parents are working. At a time when the city should be doing everything possible to support students in shelter, it is instead letting them fall even further behind.”
When my own son started kindergarten four years ago at our Brooklyn neighborhood public school, a solid city building where vines creep around the recess-yard fence, it was a big beginning, a step into the wider world. He became a citizen of the city, shepherded by its crossing guards, fed its lunches, schooled in its many celebrations — the Chinese New Year, Easter and Eid. He learned to pledge allegiance to our country, and four times a year he was drilled in surviving a national sickness — school shooters.
And he reported that he had made a best friend, J, a boy with bright eyes and a calm, easygoing demeanor who was, his teachers told us, “incredibly sweet.” J was repeating kindergarten because he had completed his first try while still struggling to read, and so he had a few adult teeth poking bunny-style out of his smile. My son, by contrast, was one of the youngest students in the class, an early reader, with what the parenting euphemizers call a “spirited” temperament. Sometimes when he played with children who had similar dispositions, it got volatile — hands slammed under blocks, bitter tears over losing — but with J he found balance.
The two took care of each other. If my son got a better prize from a red supermarket machine, he would gladly give it to J. When I went with the boys and some friends to Legoland, my son came charging off a play structure, red in the face and crying, looking for me. J intercepted him, put an arm on each of his shoulders as if to steady him and spoke a few words. Then they ran off together.
J lived with his 8-year-old sister and his mother, Mae (Mae asked that I use her middle name and her son’s first initial to protect their privacy), on the top floor of a modest house opposite a cemetery where some of J’s great-grandparents are buried; his family is Hispanic and Italian. J’s mother moved into the small apartment after J’s father left her when J was 2. The elderly woman who owned the building gave her the apartment rent-free in exchange for helping out with chores.
Mae had dyslexia and crippling anxiety, which made it hard for her to take mass transit. But she was going to counseling and was also enrolled in a job-training program. She got by on food stamps and public assistance and made her life work, cooking cornbread on a hot plate because her apartment’s ancient stove didn’t work. She had raised five older children, who were in community college or working jobs around Brooklyn, and they helped out with J and his sister when they could. One of her older daughter’s boyfriends took J to get haircuts in Sunset Park; that daughter got the children winter coats. Mae had spent the previous year going through the arduous process of getting her daughter, who is also dyslexic, placed in a private school for children with learning disabilities, where she was now thriving. And in his second run of kindergarten, J was getting a lot of extra help and was reading well. He was a popular kid, generous and kind and self-possessed.
J’s family’s apartment faced a street that trucks rumble loudly through at all hours. It was not a desirable place to live as recently as 10 years ago, but as gentrification galloped through Brooklyn, it devoured that corner as well. New owners moved into a house down the block from J’s a few years ago, painting the exterior a shade of charcoal. Mae said that developers then offered to buy her landlady’s building.
Mae received a notice of eviction before J’s first-grade year. She qualified for a housing voucher for $1,515. She went through lists of landlords who supposedly accepted the vouchers and found numbers not in service and dead ends at every turn.
Mae worked with the office of a city councilman and a public-interest lawyer to get a stay on her eviction to continue apartment hunting. She applied for affordable housing, which is awarded through a lottery, but she was not chosen. She organized folders of documentation and paperwork so she could jump on any opportunity that came along. She stayed up nights crying and had to leave her job-training program because dealing with her housing situation was a full-time job.
Eventually, Mae began moving things in plaid plastic zippered bags to the basement of one of her older children’s jobs. She called a local shelter every day for two weeks to see if she could be placed near her children’s schools, but she says no one ever picked up the phone or returned her calls.
J cried when he had to give up his little gray dog because pets are not allowed in homeless shelters. He cried when his PlayStation and train table got packed up. At school pickup, he showed me toys he made out of paper and school supplies to take home to play with in his now-empty room.
On the day Mae was told the marshals would come and give her the final eviction notice, she kept the children home from school so they could go straight to the PATH intake center with the final notice.
Mae had J stay with a relative to avoid witnessing the formal eviction, but her daughter was too anxious to be away from her mother, so she stayed in the apartment waiting, whistling at birds from her bedroom window, a favorite stuffed animal zipped into the front of her hoodie to take with her to PATH.
Although Mae had submitted medical documentation that she suffers from panic attacks on mass transit, the family was placed in conditional housing in a shelter in the Bronx, more than an hour by subway from both children’s schools. She would not be able to attend therapy, which was also back in Brooklyn. And Mae says she was told that the conditional status could take 10 days or more, which she had not anticipated, and that during that time, the Department of Education would not provide a school bus.
Ten days came and went. Mae said her daughter spent the first few days taking pictures of baby rats on glue traps in their living space in the shelter, marveling at their long snouts and tails. Then her school figured out a way to get a bus to the Bronx; the ride took 2½ hours each way. But the Department of Education could not get a bus to take J back to our sons’ school until the family had an official shelter placement, so after two weeks without school, Mae reluctantly enrolled him in the local public school. She went to a store to get curtains to make the shelter living space more like a home.
When J’s sister got sick with strep throat, Mae discovered that her thermometer was packed in one of those plaid bags in Brooklyn. Her pediatrician was in Brooklyn too, so they went to the emergency room. The city called to say that it had found a potential apartment for the family, but Mae could not take her daughter to view the apartment — she was vomiting violently at this point — and shelter rules prevented Mae from bringing anyone into the shelter to watch her; the family lost that opportunity. At one point, after a fire alarm went off in the shelter and sent them out into the winter night unexpectedly, J began sleeping in his clothes.
Ultimately, through her own connections, Mae found a tiny apartment on Staten Island where the landlord was willing to accept her voucher. J cried when he learned he would be switching schools again, and not coming back to our school. He fell far behind academically. The Staten Island apartment turned out to have black mold, Mae said, so the family moved again to another place in the borough, where a relative agreed to accept her voucher. J went to a new school again.
In August, Mae called me from their current home on Staten Island. It was a nice neighborhood, she said, but hard for her to navigate. Many of the children went to private Catholic school, and there was no laundromat or store she could walk to. She wasn’t socializing in the new neighborhood and was panicking more.
She still talked longingly about moving back to the neighborhood where she had many relatives within 10 minutes, where she had grown up, and she talked about having J come back to our school.
School was supposed to start in two weeks, but she hadn’t heard much. Bus service hadn’t been set up, and if there wasn’t a bus, she had no way to get J to school. Remote learning had not gone well. J had no live teaching, and his speech therapist had sent Mae cards to print out. She didn’t have a printer, and her dyslexia made it hard to read many of the instructions that came with the assignments.
We talked about trying to get the boys together, as we often did, and I felt a familiar pit of grief and guilt in my stomach. From my son’s perspective, on a random school day, his best friend vanished from school without notice or explanation. The day before, J had apparently told a few children he was moving to California. At the time, I wanted to protect J’s face-saving story and actually didn’t know what to tell my son about where his friend had gone. I didn’t prepare him to lose his best friend, because neither Mae nor I understood what the process would entail or how long it would take. I didn’t know J wouldn’t be allowed to have visitors at the shelter or spend a night at our house because of curfew. My son missed J terribly for quite some time. He made other friends, but he never found a new best friend.
School was an exposure to the wider world of our city in unanticipated ways; to the truth that there was no place for a family that had lived in our neighborhood for generations amid the new, understated charcoal-gray houses, and that more broadly, the enormous wealth of the city would not insulate its vulnerable citizens but rather accelerate their destabilization, and that the adults involved, myself included, were seemingly powerless to help children no different from our own.
Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for the magazine, for which she has written about Egyptian Facebook groups, a home-birth commune in Tennessee and child preachers in Brazil. Her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy, ESPN the Magazine and Wired.