But resources from the city continue to dwindle
By Daniel Bejarano
Over a quarter of the students at P.S. 333 in Longwood live in temporary housing, are doubled up with relatives, living in a shelter or are a court hearing away from eviction.
But despite the disturbing numbers of young people in unsteady environments, the city is devoting ever fewer resources to these children, critics say.
Keeping reliable records on students living in flux is difficult, said the school’s principal Arthur Brown, because “they are a very mobile population.” Students can easily go from living with a relative to a shelter.
When Brown spoke at a Community Board 2 meeting in April, 137 of his students were in unstable housing situations.
The instability in students’ lives causes them to lack discipline, frequently miss school and struggle with academics, said the school’s Parent Coordinator Luz Gerena.
“When kids know they don’t have to stay long in a school, they don’t commit. Every year we see an increase with this problem,” she said.
With over 67,000 homeless students in the school system citywide, up about 16,000 since 2007, the challenges they face are increasingly apparent.
District 8, of which P.S. 333 is part, has the city’s fourth-largest percentage of homeless students, according to the Department of Education’s data, as compiled by the state’s Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYC-TEACHS).
Homeless students can have a three- to four-month lag in their academic progress when they transfer from one school to another, said NYC-TEACHS Project Director Jennifer Pringle. Ideally, students would stay in the borough where their school district is, but that is not always possible.
“Sometimes kids are shifted around from Brooklyn to the Bronx, and moved up to three times,” said Gerena.
Living far from their kids’ assigned school district is not the only stressor for families, however. Alba Ortiz, 52, and Erik Acevedo, 41, whose sons attend P.S. 333, are living in limbo after receiving court notices to vacate their apartments. Ortiz, a single mother of two, hasn’t been able to pay her rent since August, 2011, and can’t work because of her asthma. Advantage, the public assistance program that helped her pay the rent, was eliminated.
Ortiz, whose younger son wants to be lawyer, said, “My sons cry when they see me in these conditions.”
Finding help means navigating a maze of program requirements. Bronx Works, an agency with headquarters on Jackson Ave. that works with homeless clients, says it can help Ortiz avoid eviction, but only after she uses her $200 welfare assistance to cover the rent. A Bronx Works supervisor didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Ortiz lived in a shelter for nine months, but dreads going back, because of the confined environment and strict rules.
“They don’t let you in after 9 p.m. and you have to leave during the day,” she said.
Other families live in situations just as dire. Gerena said conditions in some city-subsided buildings are terrible.
“There’s big rats, and they are frequented by drug dealers,” she said. “How come the city is paying $1,300 for those apartments?”
Homeless and at-risk students aren’t entirely without help, however.
Some schools, like P.S. 333, offer classes and programs for students on how to express feelings and anger management, with particular attention to students living in flux.
Last October, The Children’s Aid Society began helping Hunts Point families through their Preventive Services program, with housing, mental health, legal assistance and small amounts of cash for emergencies. The program is funded by the city’s Administration for Children Services, and aims to prevent child abuse and neglect by working closely with families. About 50 of its 84 cases are related to housing.
Elizabeth Rogers, the program supervisor, said the major obstacle for financially-struggling families is finding services, or finding them on time. A child could wait up to five months for needed mental health services, for example.
Veronica Melendez, a case manager in the program, said finding help for families who are not on public assistance is the biggest challenge.
The DOE has services designed to aid homeless and regularly housed students alike, said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the department. Workers “ensure that essential student needs are being addressed” and tutoring and counseling are readily available, she said. But school staff say it can take months to get vulnerable students that assistance.
Some fear even bleaker prospects for homeless families lie ahead. The mayor’s proposed budget cuts would close early childhood and after-school programs serving over 40,000 children next fiscal year.
At a forum on family homelessness at the Center for New York City Affairs in April, director Andrew White acknowledged that, given the obstacles, “shelters are not a great place to raise children.”