by Gary Bagley
In recent months, homelessness has dominated the news, with Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio offering strong public support for addressing the issue as well as debate on which interventions would yield the greatest impact. Homelessness is not a new issue, but it is a growing one. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness has been on a largely uninterrupted rise in the city for the past decade, and has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression.
Tonight, over 57,000 New Yorkers, 40% of whom are children, will sleep in shelters according to the Department for Homeless Services, with an additional 18,000 estimated to be doubling up with friends or family, or sleeping on the streets or in empty buildings, according to “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress” from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those who do end up in shelters are remaining there longer with the average family stay in a shelter lasting 440 days in 2014, compared to 315 days in 2002 (The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH), “Why New York City’s Homeless Family Policies Keep Failing” (Dec 2015).
Perhaps most heartbreaking the plight of homeless children who are far less likely to succeed in school and break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. In its report, “The Atlas of Student Homelessness in New York City 2015” (Aug 2015), ICPH, notes that during the 2013-14 school year, the number of homeless New York City children reached a level equivalent to the entire population of Trenton NJ. In addition, middle school students who experienced homelessness passed state math and English language arts tests at about half the rate of students overall. Elementary school children who experienced homelessness meanwhile suffered from a lack of schooling with 36% recorded as being chronically absent, compared to 19% of elementary school students overall.
As officials in City Hall and Albany continue to develop programs to get people who are homeless into shelters and eventually permanent housing, you may feel that fighting homelessness can only come from policymakers and that you are powerless to have an impact on such an immense problem. Like many serious social issues, there are ways we can each roll up our sleeves to help alleviate some day-to-day suffering and to fill the gaps in the services that are currently offered. Any caring New Yorker can help by volunteering at the wide variety of nonprofits, schools and agencies that provide critical programs such as meal service, job preparation, adult literacy, health and wellness education and after-school tutoring.
Last year, New York Cares volunteers spent time helping children practice their reading, teaching photography, leading science projects, and exploring museums and parks with homeless children. They also enabled New York Cares to run vital before and after school in sports, reading, math, and science programs in many of the city’s public schools
By tutoring adults to get a high school diploma, providing job support services, and practicing English with speakers of other languages (who represent a disproportionately large portion of homeless New Yorkers), volunteers also tackled the issues that keep people homeless and perpetuate a cycle of poverty.
How do you volunteer to help the homeless? I’d like to hear what you do and why this is important to you. Leave me a post here or tweet me at @gbagley_nycares. As we each do our small part, it is so important to know that there is a community of thousands of New York Cares volunteers who join you in this fight, whether in a homeless shelter in another borough, collecting coats at their office, or preparing someone for the workforce. Your stories help us advocate for the impact every citizen can have in facing the City’s most critical issues.
Gary Bagley is the Executive Director of New York Cares.