A Pandemic of Student Homelessness

Dec 22, 2020 by

During the winter’s spate of religious holidays, we traditionally flag for our immediate ephemeral attention certain dilemmas of universal human failure and neatly replace them with promises of rededicated pursuit of spiritual triumph.

That dedication usually erodes before the downing of the first champagne glass after the Times Square ball drops, allowing the new year to proceed.

Homelessness seasonally tugs on the heartstrings of comfortable people who with varying degrees of sincere and luxurious sympathy treat themselves to the pathos of their fellow creatures against whose fates their own has successfully competed.

It allows them to feel good about themselves and then move on unencumbered. That’s what it means to be privileged.

Now it’s again the hour for action against urban decay and human neglect, though the hands of the clock scarcely move.  They’re stuck at sustenance. The tin cups are still needed at shopping malls.

The wages of homelessness is more than bad optics. And even more poignant than forlorn puppies in euthanasia shelters.

When limited to being an abstraction, caring about others is almost an insult to them.

How compelling is the message to the Department of Education?

According to a recent report in Chalkbeat, there may soon be 600 percent as many students in our city’s homeless shelters than there are seats in the Barclay Center. The population already exceeds that Vermont, notes Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children NY. The ridiculously mild and almost condescending term “unacceptable” doesn’t capture the enormity, Schools must try to mitigate the misery of students’ homelessness, even though they can’t cure it. Do they do all that they can? 

These kids and their parents cannot be held accountable for failure to comply with demands that are unrealistic or impossible. 

“Remote learning” has created many false negatives that the bureaucracy can’t be bothered to envisage, but less tackle. When these kids don’t submit assignments, it is usually beyond their control or the means of their caregivers. 

They don’t have a working device in their shelter, there are multiple children with conflicting schedules, the parents must leave their children unsupervised so that they can put bread and milk on the table or to go fight to return to homes from which they have been evicted during this plague year.

The concept of “school attendance” does not have the same meaning and enforcement of regulations must be done with extreme care, discretion and compassion.

There are reports that doses of official compassion have been in short supply. Parents have been referred to city agencies and investigated for education neglect.

Duress makes many homeless kids resilient, struggling to get by and often to get away.  They are bearing the brunt of innocence and inured against an inhospitable world. But they are adept at finding their seats in the classroom of life. 

Prodigious survival instincts are enablers of intellectual precocity. These are brilliant students.

Initiatives to help homeless students are periodically announced with much fanfare, considerable expectation and scarce results.  Covid has given the city’s social services network an expedient for paralysis.

Homelessness is a second pandemic in our city but it is not secondary to our schoolkids and it shouldn’t be to the Department of Education. 

Ron Isaac

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