The Garden State has “lost” thousands of homeless students.
New Jersey, with its golf courses, beaches and woodsy enclaves, has a significant poverty crisis. The NJ State Senate is currently addressing widespread hunger among NJ students, with a flurry of legislative action to make sure stomachs aren’t growling in classrooms. Good. But what about the tens of thousands of “lost” homeless students?
New Jersey has plenty to be proud of — the NW corner is pretty scenic, a coastline of nice beaches, fertile farmland, plenty of diners, proximity to NYC, talented stars (Jon Stewart being my favorite) and DJT has three of the most tremendous golf course in the world in NJ.
Last fall, I spent a month filming and producing a documentary on homeless families/youth for the NJ Department of Education’s McKinney-Vento program. They’re responsible for implementing the educational rights for students experiencing homelessness.
Many people don’t realize how hard it is to make sure homeless kids at least get an education. I’m one of the people responsible for passage of the federal law, the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Act, which guarantees that school doors open to homeless students.
That gives me a little extra incentive for helping more kids get into school when districts might be, ahem, ignoring them. New Jersey is certainly not alone in this oversight, but they provide a textbook case of how serious this issue is.
Education Is Vital for Homeless Kids
First, though, a review reasons why it’s important for kids to have a stable education, not just bounce needlessly from school to school, or not even get into school, to counter their housing instability:
- School is the one security kids have when their housing is topsy-turvy.
- The stability becomes a haven for 6–7 hours a day. Think of your life if you had nowhere you belonged.
- Bonds formed with classmates and teachers add to the stability, reducing stress. Some stress may be good, but the stress of being without a place to call home AND a familiar school environment overwhelms most kids (and adults).
- School provides tangible resources — food, school supplies, counseling, transportation — in addition to the knowledge that gets imparted daily.
- Education is (or at least should be) a stepping stone to self-sufficiency and success.
- When kids are in school, parents can take care of business — looking for housing, work, etc.
- School offers extra curricular opportunities — activities that further develop students’ abilities — e.g. sports, music, academic clubs.
NJ’s 35 Poorest Cities Homelessness/Poverty Statistics
Reviewing data for the 35 poorest cities in the state gives a good sample of how serious the oversight of identify homeless students is. These cities have:
- Students on Free Lunch (the poorest students) — 194,702
- 10% of Students on Free Lunch (conservative estimate of # at risk of homelessness) — 19,470
- Students Identified as homeless — 2,383
- Gap — students identified as homeless vs. probable # of homeless students — 17,087
So, over 17,000 students in these 35 poorest NJ communities are not identified as homeless!
While some might manage to do okay if not identified as homeless, many others will struggle to even get into school, or to stay in their school of origin (as allowed by law). They may miss out on services — transportation, meals, counseling, etc. — that would help them succeed in school.
Significantly lower graduation rates, and an array of predictable negative lifetime effects, make it essential to ramp up efforts to increase and improve educational opportunities for the estimated 6 million+ students experiencing homelessness in America.
5 (of many) reasons why students aren’t identified:
- Some students may be in school, but fearful of being identified as “out of district,” when they have the legal right to be in their school, so they hide their housing status.
- Some may not recognize their situation as homeless, thinking they’re just couch surfing or bouncing from cheap motel to cheap motel, sleeping in big box store parking lots or campgrounds because of “hard times.”
- Schools often fail to recognize SIGNS of homelessness.
- Schools don’t want to risk lower test scores that might come from students who assumedly have greater educational liabilities.
- Affluent schools/communities don’t want to admit to the stigma of homelessness.
No matter the reason, public schools nationwide have the legal obligation to provide homeless students the same educational services as non-homeless students. It’s a federal law.
Each school district is required to have a trained homeless liaison to make sure students are getting these educational services.
Worn Out Welcome Mat: Family Homelessness in New Jersey, in 20 minutes, lets viewers hear from parents and kids about the importance of education, especially when homelessness is a factor. This film is not only an effective professional development tool, it’s designed for general audiences to increase their awareness of and sensitivity to this significant population.
HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit organization, creates films like this to raise awareness of, and increase sensitivity to families and youth experiencing homelessness. It’s important to hear from those who know homelessness firsthand. Case in point, the issue of families staying in motels. Spend 5 minutes listening to Tamu, a mother living with her 4 children in a motel, talk about their challenges.
Identifying and meeting the educational needs of students experiencing homelessness is a responsibility for every state’s educators. New Jersey DoE has prioritized this challenge.
Maybe they should talk to Jon Stewart about taking on this cause!