Homeless families in New York City have long been forced into a difficult choice: In order to apply for housing, they must have their children skip school.
Now, the city’s Department of Homeless Services is changing its policies to try to lessen the extraordinary disruption that homelessness causes in all aspects of a child’s life.
To get a spot in a shelter, families must travel to the city’s intake center, known as the PATH, short for Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing, in the South Bronx. For the initial interview, the whole family must go. It is a trip many make repeatedly, as applicants are frequently rejected because they do not have sufficient documentation; families must document every place they have lived, stayed or slept during the past two years.
Under new rules to be phased in by November, if a family has applied for shelter within the past 30 days, the children do not have to come back to PATH when their parents reapply.
That is not an uncommon situation: The city said 47 percent of all families who apply once end up trying again within that period of time.
“We set out to eliminate as many obstacles to children attending school” as possible, said Steven Banks, the city’s commissioner of the Department of Social Services. “This is an important step forward.”
The effect of homelessness on a child’s schooling can be devastating: Nearly 40 percent of homeless students missed at least a month of school during the 2014-15 school year, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. And even students in stable housing who have been homeless in the past tend to perform far worsethan their peers. The institute found that the math-proficiency rate for third through eighth graders was just 21 percent among formerly homeless students, 13 percentage points behind other children who are poor, but have always had a place to live.
These students need as much time in the classroom as possible, advocates for homeless families say. Instead, they have been pulled out repeatedly to go to PATH, where they might spend two days waiting for an interview. It is a place pulsing with anxiety, an environment that would be difficult even for children in less disquieting circumstances.
Kathryn Kliff, a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society who works with homeless families, said there was just one play area, on the building’s sixth floor, where domestic violence interviews are conducted.
“Every other floor, there are just chairs, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait,” Ms. Kliff said. “That’s brutal for any kid, let alone one going through a housing crisis.”
Mr. Banks said the city would not drop the requirement that children come to the first interview, because it was crucial to see children face-to-face at the beginning of the process so that a social worker can gauge their well-being.
“We have a responsibility to assess the health and welfare of the children who are placed in the shelter system,” Mr. Banks said. “Domestic violence is a driver of 30 percent of the families seeking shelter, so it’s ever-present in the families seeking our help under desperate circumstances.”
But it will take two other actions aimed at reducing the amount of time children spend at PATH. Before school starts next week, the Department of Homeless Services will announce to its staff members that they must make clear to applicants that children are required to attend only the first interview. Mr. Banks said that many families had kept their children with them at PATH throughout the process, which can last up to 10 days, “because the information, frankly, wasn’t clear.” A flier will also be distributed to families.
In addition, if a child who has been in foster care is returned to his or her family, that reunion will happen at the family’s shelter, not at PATH, as had previously been required. This change will affect a small number of families, as just 96 of them were reunited at PATH last year, the city said. Mr. Banks said that in those cases, the Administration for Children’s Services will already have assessed the needs of the child so it is not necessary for his agency to do so again.
While advocates said the change was an important first step, many said they hoped that in the future children would not have to to come to PATH at all.
Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, suggested that instead of requiring a face-to-face interview at PATH, the city could rely on the staff at shelters or schools to assess children. Ms. Kliff said a teacher would be in a better position to know how a student was faring than a PATH employee meeting him or her for the first time.