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Columbia Spectator Staff

For a student in the New York City homeless shelter system, leaving school at 6 p.m. can mean going home to loud or messy neighbors, bed bugs, or the possibility of having to move again. "The quality of home life is poor, even though they have four walls, a door, and a ceiling," said Amier Carmel, a social worker at Democracy Prep Charter School on West 133rd Street. "In the shelter [system], they can't count on a regular home. It might be month to month, or week to week that kids are moved." According to the NYC Department of Homeless Services' most recently released daily report, as of Feb. 26 there were a total of 15,495 families with children in shelters across the city. Experts say that this number is growing in response to the recession. "Data published by the city of New York clearly shows that the economic crisis has increased homelessness among NYC single individuals and families," said economics lecturer Anna Musatti. "Starting from 2001, families with children represent a larger and fast-increasing portion of the city homeless." Out of the 410 students at Carmel's school, he knows of six who are currently living in shelters. But he said that there could be more, since he only knows students are homeless if they tell him personally, because shelters can also be used as a permanent address for school paperwork. "Some of our kids are real troopers," Carmel said. "They pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and charge ahead with work." Democracy Prep provides students with transportation to and from school if they don't qualify for city-issued MetroCards, an escort service, outside support while their parents are busy, and in-school counseling, Carmel said. "New York City is good in the sense that there's a battery of services out there. The problem is accessing those services. Since funding has gone downhill in an incredible and staggering way, these services have also gone down," Carmel said. Legally, schools have specific responsibilities toward homeless students. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, reauthorized in January 2002, states are obligated to provide homeless children with the same free public education that students living in households receive. The NYC Department of Education also has a program called Students in Temporary Housing, which provides family assistants and experts who help families make sure their rights are maintained even when they are homeless. The unit's aim is to help make families aware of the available resources for homeless students. The Department of Homeless Services also funds shelters across the city. Still, "Youth in Crisis," a study released by Covenant House and the Columbia Center for Homelessness Prevention Studies in March 2009, reported that 77 percent of the youth enrolled in Covenant House New York did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school. Covenant House New York, on 41st Street, serves 18- to 22-year-olds, many of whom have aged out of the foster care system, said Kate Levin, spokesperson for Covenant House. Some youth enter the crisis program, meaning that they stay at the shelter for 30 days, while others transition into the Rights of Passage program for a year-and-a-half and enroll in community colleges or GED programs. Levin said that the experience can be very challenging for students. "I've heard from some of the students that it's embarrassing. They don't want to admit to their fellow classmates that they live in a shelter. For these young people, trying to succeed and move beyond it [homelessness] can be hard," Levin said. But Nicholas Robertson-Forge, a boardmember of Trinity Place Shelter on 100th Street, which aids homeless LGBT youth between 18 and 24, pointed out that shelters can provide youth with basic needs so that they can pursue an education or a career. "When you think about homeless youth, the first thing that comes to mind is, if you don't have a stable home environment or place to stay, getting your basic needs met comes first," Robertson-Forge said. "For a lot of homeless youth, they're not thinking about high school or college because they don't have their basic needs met." One challenge in helping homeless LGBT youth is the lack of records, which makes it difficult to secure financial aid or other services, Robertson-Forge said. For young people who have left home, it is difficult to access that information readily. He said, though, that the McKinney-Vento Act protects children under 18, so that they do not require documentation to have access to school immediately. The school must help homeless students access this information. "When it comes to college-age youth, I think it could potentially be more problematic because there aren't necessarily protections at the federal level in terms of accessing colleges or universities, because we don't view that as a right—it's something you can access if you're able to," Robertson-Forge said. At Trinity Place, he said, there are residents who are full-time students. He wasn't sure if their schools were aware if the students were homeless, because the shelter serves as a permanent address. While Democracy Prep Charter School provides students with extra support services, the school should still have a better method of identifying the homeless, Carmel said. "Our school day is 7:44 to 5:15 p.m., so the kids don't leave until around 6 p.m.," he said. "We try to keep kids here as much as possible to get everyone up to speed academically and also socially, to give them a positive experience." The DOE did not respond to repeated request for comment. news@columbiaspectator.com

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