More than 100,000 city public school students lack permanent housing, caught in bureaucratic limbo that often seems like a trap. This is what their lives are like.
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.