Foss: Student homelessness on rise

Education of uprooted children suffers
Amelia Watts, an outreach worker with the New York City Human Resources Administration, talks with a parent in Brooklyn.
Amelia Watts, an outreach worker with the New York City Human Resources Administration, talks with a parent in Brooklyn.

Being a student is hard enough. 

Now imagine being a homeless student. 

You might be sleeping at shelter, or in a car. You might not be eating enough. Your clothes might be dirty. Your parent or guardian might spend the bulk of their time calling landlords, visiting apartments and trying to find a place to live. 

Given the turmoil and instability in your life, your performance at school suffers. You’re absent more often. When you do show up, you’re unprepared, tired and anxious.  

Most New York schools deal with students like this every day — and a new report indicates that their numbers are on the rise. 

According to new data from the New York State Education Department, the number of homeless students in state schools increased 6 percent between the 2015-2016 school year and the 2016-2017 school year. 

This is a sizable increase, and it’s something schools throughout the state are experiencing, to one degree or another. The problem is most severe in New York City, where 10 percent of students were homeless last year, but upstate schools are dealing with it, too. 

Here in Schenectady, the number of students considered homeless at some point during the 2016-2017 school year was 257, a 96 percent increase from the 2011-2012 school year, when 131 students were considered homeless. 

In other districts, the numbers were more stable, or on the decline. 

In the Greater Amsterdam School District, 122 students were considered homeless in 2016-2017, up from 120 in 2011-2012. In the Saratoga Springs City School District, the number of students considered homeless in 2016-2017 was 165, a 6 percent drop from the 2011-2012 school year, when 176 students were considered homeless. 

Disturbed by the sharp rise in the number of homeless students in Schenectady, I reached out to Larry Spring, the superintendent of the Schenectady City School District. 

Spring confirmed that the problem is getting worse, while also noting that the district is making a greater effort to identify homeless students and assist them. 

“I think in the past we under-identified homeless students,” Spring told me. “But if you look at the data, you can see that the frequency of homelessness is increasing. … It’s a pretty intense problem here.” 

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. 

But I can’t say I was surprised, given what I know about the pervasiveness of poverty in the city of Schenectady. 

Fortunately, the district is taking steps to address the problem of student homelessness. 

In the past year, the district has created three new positions, called education liaisons, to help students who are undergoing what Spring described as “any kind of transition.” 

The idea is that most of these students have been forced to move as a result of a family crisis, and that understanding what’s going on and providing “short-term crisis management” will prevent the student from “getting lost in the shuffle.” 

“Any time a kid moves their learning goes on hold for three or four months,” Spring continued. “If a kid’s family gets evicted, the unsettledness impedes their ability to learn.” 

I moved when I was a kid, but it was a planned, orderly move, from one permanent address to another. 

Spring is talking about a different kind of transition — a forced, abrupt transition that is the result of calamity or crisis. 

These kinds of abrupt, forced moves are tough — and they’re especially tough on kids, who benefit from stability and calm. 

Sadly, Schenectady is an unusually transient school district — 18 percent of students move out of the district each year, while 18 percent of students move in. So long as these numbers remain high, the district will continue to struggle with a lower graduation rate, lower test scores and other problems. 

Student homelessness is a complex problem with no easy answers. 

The root cause of it is poverty, which is exacerbated by rising rents and a lack of housing that low-income people can afford. Many poor people are engaged in a near-constant search for housing, and it is children who often bear the brunt of the instability and upheaval that results. 

That a significant number of children are dealing with the stress and anxiety that goes along with not having a fixed or permanent address is troubling. 

Even more troubling is the fact that the problem appears to be getting worse. 

And unless something changes, it will continue to do so. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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