By: Shamecha Lywood and Autumn McLeod
The number of homeless students in New York State rose by 30 percent to almost 30,000 between 2011 and 2014, according to combined data from the NYS-TEACHS and SIRS.
These numbers include a total of 29,637 homeless students surveyed outside of the five boroughs by the New York State Technical and Education Center for the Homeless (NYS-TEACHS) for the 2013-2014 school year, in contrast with the 21,156 homeless students that were registered by the Student Information Repository System (SIRS) in 2010-2011.
“Under the McKinney-Vento [Act], there’s a mandate that families in the [homeless] centers have the opportunity to enroll their kids in school,” executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless Greta Guarton, said. “It’s the school district’s responsibility to make sure that students are able to go to school.”
The McKinney-Vento Act states that “each state educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.”
A number of organizations and coalitions on Long Island have been trying to make it easier for homeless children and adults to gain access to their rights according to McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless host an annual event called Back Pack Pirates in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Christmas Magic. The purpose of the drive is to supply homeless children ages five to 19 with school supplies and clothes for the school year.
“Our original goal for this year was 5,000 backpacks. We gave away over 3,000,” Guarton said. “Backpacks went primarily to kids that live in emergency shelters and transitional housing.” Although coalition did not reach their goal of 5,000 backpacks this year, Chamberlain still considered Backpack Pirates a success.
Jennifer Dicristina, who helped coordinate HELP Suffolk’s participation in Back Pack Pirates, brought 47 kids to the event. HELP Suffolk is the largest housing facility for the homeless on Long Island.
Charles Russo, board chair of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless and president/founder of Christmas Magic, described other educational resources that his organizations provide to students graduating high school.
“We are involved in scholarship programs for students embarking to college,” Russo said. “We enable kids from shelters to get a college experience.”
Julia Levine, the CEO of the Long Island Women’s Empowerment Network, attended Backpack Pirates and described it as “wonderful.” Her association works with children up to the age of 18-19, as well as pregnant mothers.
“We partner up with BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) and we assist in getting parents their GED,” Levine said. “Children receive mentoring and homework help as well.”
Every school district has a homeless liaison who assesses the needs that homeless families may have including education, Julia Schnurman, the coordinator for the Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said.
“Once they move into permanent housing, we provide case management services,” Valerie Chamberlain, who is part of the Steering Committee at Long Island Coalition for the Homeless and works at the Family Services League, said. Chamberlain focuses on permanent housing and assisting newly transitioned families in keeping their homes. “[…] if it’s determined that the kid needs advocacy at the school level, we’re going to those appointments with the parents to advocate at the school level for the child to get whatever they’re in need of.”
“You hear things throughout the day like ‘This is the best day of my life,’ ‘I’ve never had so much fun before,’ and ‘I don’t want this day to end,’” Chamberlain said. “Because homeless kids have very limited social resources.”