Shelter Evictions Will Damage Migrant Children, Schools Warn

Since last summer, tens of thousands of migrant families living in homeless shelters have enrolled children in New York City schools. Their arrival buoyed the system, which had been losing students, prompting the mayor to declare that “public schools are back.”

But now, the city is forcing many of those families to reapply for shelter beds, threatening what educators say is a hard-fought and fragile stability for migrant children, many of whom endured upheaval and trauma on their journey to America.

About 3,500 migrant families have received eviction notices that will go into effect starting in early January. They will be required to leave their shelters and request a new placement if they have lived there longer than 60 days. It remains unclear whether they’ll be given beds right away and whether the new shelters will be in the same neighborhoods.

The orders come as the influx from the southern border continues unabated and Mayor Eric Adams has sought to push people to leave the strained homeless shelter system more quickly.

But more than two dozen principals, educators, parents and advocates said in interviews that the policy could lead to the biggest disruption since schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the eviction notices go into effect next month, the migrant families will face a difficult choice: Stay in the same school, which could mean a long commute if they’re placed in a distant shelter, or transfer to a new school and start from scratch.

Either way, the upheaval is likely to be painful for both students and schools, educators and experts say.

Homeless families have a federal right to keep their children enrolled in the same school when they move, in part because midyear transfers can be devastating to students, interrupting academic progress and relationships formed with teachers and friends.

About 3,500 migrant families have received eviction notices after a 60-day shelter stay.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

But teachers fear absences may surge even for families who opt to stay in the same school if they are placed in faraway shelters and children face long trips to get to class.

For schools, a mass reshuffling of families in shelters could create a revolving door of new arrivals, administrators said, making it harder for teachers to address student needs and complicating school budgets.

On Thursday, elected officials — including the city comptroller, public advocate and a third of the members of the City Council — demanded a reversal of the policy in a letter to Mr. Adams.

“I can’t stop thinking about the trauma this is going to cause,” said Rosa Diaz, a parent leader whose East Harlem district has received thousands of migrant students.

A court order requires the city to provide a bed to any homeless person who asks for one, and Mayor Adams has repeatedly cautioned that New York cannot handle the costs of housing and caring for migrants.

Over 157,000 migrants have arrived since last year, and more than 67,000 are now in shelters. Officials say the 60-day time limits are meant to help clear space. In September, the city placed 30-day limits on shelter stays for single adult migrants, and most did not reapply for placements when their time was up.

But in recent weeks, dozens of adults who are reapplying have slept on sidewalks in frigid conditions as they wait for beds. Critics of the 60-day plan have raised the specter of similar scenes playing out for families with young children this winter.

Mr. Adams has said he hopes to avoid having families sleep on the street.

“If they say don’t do the 60-day rule, give me an alternative. Because we’ve been open to ideas,” he said this week.

The 60-day policy does not yet apply to families living at many shelters, where the city requires state waivers to distribute eviction notices. But starting next month, families living in several emergency shelters are expected to pack up and leave to reapply for housing at the Roosevelt Hotel intake center in Midtown.

Elected officials urged Mayor Eric Adams to rethink the eviction policy for families.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

The school system is split into 32 local districts, and officials have said they will try to place families in, or near, their youngest child’s district.

The new shelter plan is setting off a chaotic scramble in parts of the school system. At one Brooklyn school, teachers hugged some of their students goodbye for winter break, uncertain whether they would return in the New Year. In Queens, a principal worried that children who had finally begun trusting school staff would again be thrown into turmoil.

At Brooklyn RISE, a charter school in Downtown Brooklyn, teachers have welcomed more than 30 migrant children this fall. The students have become “such a part of the community,” said Cary Finnegan, the school’s founder.

They initially greeted their teachers every day with “buenos dias!” Lately, it’s been “good morning,” staff members said. As families began receiving eviction notices, school leaders and social workers called one city official after another, trying to find out what might unfold.

“I just can’t think of a worse time to do this,” Ms. Finnegan said.

Amaris Cockfield, a mayoral spokeswoman, said in a statement that the administration has been warning that “this crisis could play out on city streets” without additional help. “We have been national leaders, but, simply put, we’re out of good options,” Ms. Cockfield said.

Outside the Row NYC hotel this week, several migrant parents said they and their children were losing sleep. Most had received little to no information on what to do when they reach the 60-day limit.

One father, Jose Gregorio Leal, 35, had kept his family’s notice from his wife who has a heart condition. A mother, Luz Rodriguez, 35, said she watched shelter staff toss migrants’ belongings into black trash bags and place them outside. She fears the same thing could happen to her family.

Some migrant families left the shelter system in recent weeks, doubling up in apartments. Others have departed for different states, school leaders said. Many migrants described disillusionment after arriving with great hopes for their lives in New York.

“Imagine that, 60 days at one site and 60 days at another,” said Luisa Castillo, 47, whose two public school children are “really anxious” over the disruption. “They’re never going to learn.”

“They’re never going to learn,” said Luisa Castillo, left, of her two sons, Arian, 10, and Angel, 15.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Some families have been exploited while trying to navigate the city’s complex housing market. Gina Cirrito, a parent at Public School 87 on the Upper West Side where roughly 30 migrant students are enrolled, said a family at the school frantically tried to secure an apartment after receiving a 60-day notice.

“They were scammed out of every penny they had been saving,” Ms. Cirrito said.

Her son and one of his migrant classmates have built a friendship despite their language barrier, bonding over soccer games. “That’s all going to be shattered,” she said.

Across New York, more than 33,000 new homeless students — most of whom are migrants — have enrolled in schools since last year. The system has relied heavily on principals, parents and community groups to coordinate support.

Many schools are still assessing how children are faring, tracking academic gaps and identifying signs of potential disabilities. But educators worry those efforts will be upended and they will have to begin again if students move and new ones transfer in.

“If you think that data is getting shared — in the middle of the year between schools — it’s not happening,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union.

He was scathing about the city’s plan. “It’s horrible, it’s garbage and inhumane,” he said.

Students who remain in their current school could also encounter fresh obstacles.

Shahana Hanif, a city councilwoman for parts of central Brooklyn, said students in her district have “missed school for weeks on end” after previous moves that were unrelated to the shelter limit. One family was recently moved to a Jamaica, Queens, shelter. Their child’s school is in Park Slope, Brooklyn, she said, more than 70 minutes away. Ms. Hanif is worried that migrant children could soon face similar commutes.

Homeless students are entitled to school buses, but the city’s yellow bus system is traditionally plagued by delays and right now has a shortage of several hundred drivers.

At Central Park East II in Upper Manhattan, some of the school’s five dozen migrant children have recently struggled to focus in their classes, said Jeanette Frazier, who works for the nonprofit Children’s Aid, which helps support students at the school.

She said that one girl, anxious over her family’s shelter eviction, told her last week: “This is not an American dream. This is a nightmare.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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