Students work together in a makeshift classroom at a homeless...

Students work together in a makeshift classroom at a homeless shelter in Commack on Feb. 12, 2014. Credit: Daniel Brennan

The number of homeless schoolchildren has quadrupled in Nassau County and more than doubled in Suffolk since the recession first hit -- even as federal funding for homeless student programs has decreased.

While Long Island's economy is recovering, the number of homeless families continues to grow, according to state and county figures.

The uptick has strained resources in many districts already beset by layoffs and reduced state education aid. Social service programs for the children and their families also have experienced federal, state and county budget cuts.

Apart from New York City, which has some 80,500 homeless students, Suffolk has the highest homeless enrollment in the state. The county had nearly 5,000 homeless students as of the 2012-13 school year, up from 1,956 in 2007-08.

Nassau was next last year with 3,200 homeless students, up from 663 in 2007-08. Figures are not yet available for the current school year, State Department of Education officials said.

Social service advocates and education experts ascribe the increase on Long Island to factors including the economic downturn, an inadequate supply of affordable housing, displacement of families following superstorm Sandy and improved data collection methods.

"These are families that are still hurting from the economy, who have had their homes foreclosed upon, or who have been devastated by [superstorm] Sandy . . . School is the stabilizing force for these children," said Rosemary Dehlow, Long Island coordinator for Community Housing Innovations, a nonprofit that operates homeless shelters in Nassau and Suffolk.

The increase in the number of homeless students reflects national trends showing that homeless student enrollment has increased steadily since the recession began in 2007 and reached an all-time high during the 2011-12 school year, according to the most recent national data available from the National Center for Homeless Education, an agency funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Nationwide, there were 1.2 million homeless students during the 2011-12 school year -- a 10 percent increase from the previous year and a 72 percent jump from the start of 2007-08 school year.

"What you're seeing on Long Island is what you're seeing throughout the country -- the number of homeless families has grown much faster than the shelters and resources that are available to them," said Barbara Sheffield, policy adviser for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

LI districts affected

In Suffolk, the school districts with the largest populations of homeless students are William Floyd with 732, Brentwood with 357 and Lindenhurst with 312.

In Nassau, the districts that historically have had the largest homeless student populations are Uniondale, which last school year had 239 homeless students, Hempstead with 268, and Westbury, 244.

In some districts, families who were displaced temporarily by superstorm Sandy in October 2012 skewed the numbers. Last year, the East Rockaway and Massapequa school districts, which generally had homeless student populations in the single digits, saw their numbers spike to 460 and 353, respectively.

New York State considers children in shelters, motels and temporarily "doubled up" with relatives and friends as homeless. The latter classification dramatically affected some districts, including Massapequa, which saw its homeless population jump from six before Sandy to more than 300 afterward, said Robert Schilling, the district's executive director of Assessment, Student Data & Technology Services. The number has since decreased to 60.

"Before Sandy hit, I could count the number of [homeless] students on one hand," said Schilling, who serves as the district's homeless-student liaison. "It wasn't a big stress on your day-to-day job. Directly after Sandy, it was a full-time job."

The William Floyd School District, which covers Shirley, Mastic and Mastic Beach, has experienced cuts in federal funding while trying to meet the needs of a homeless population that has more than doubled since the recession began, Superintendent Paul Casciano said.

Last school year, there were 732 homeless students in the district of 9,300 students -- up from 614 the previous year. Communities in the district have some of the highest foreclosure rates on Long Island -- 100 per 1,000 households in Mastic and Mastic Beach in 2011-12, compared with the Suffolk average of 39.5, according to data from RealtyTrac, a national foreclosure data collection service.

Casciano said the district previously had two social workers to counsel homeless students, but cut one of the positions last year due to a loss of federal funding. During the 2009-10 school year, the district received $125,000 in federal funding for the positions; the following school year that figure dropped to $42,660, and during the 2011-12 school year, the funding was eliminated, according to the district.

The annual $66,578 salary of the remaining social worker, and nearly $46,000 in associated costs for the employee, including health insurance, insurance taxes and pension, are now covered by the district.

"Our community is very supportive" of the redirection of some district resources to homeless children, Casciano said. "When we hit the recession, people understood that people were struggling -- they were very sensitive to that . . . Everyone got hit, I think, that generally people understand it's a life circumstance. It's a temporary state. People are not looking to remain homeless."

Federal funding under the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the primary source of direct federal funding for homeless programs, requires all school districts to have a liaison for displaced students and to provide transportation for homeless students living in shelters outside of the district they attended before becoming homeless. Funding for McKinney declined from $2.05 billion in 2012 to $1.92 billion in 2013 -- a dip advocates for the homeless attribute to across-the-board cuts last year to federal programs. In January, Congress approved $2.1 billion for the program for 2014.

Currently, about 1 in 5 districts nationwide receives federal aid under McKinney-Vento, which is distributed through competitive grants, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth said.

New York received $3.7 million under the act this school year compared with $6.7 million in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

'Myriad challenges'

"Districts face myriad challenges, especially given the budgetary constraints many districts are operating under," said Jennifer Pringle, project director for New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless students, an agency funded by the state Department of Education that trains school districts to address the needs of homeless students.

Pringle said guidance counselors and social workers often are among the first positions cut when budgets get tight. "These staff provide critical social [and] emotional support to all students, including students experiencing homelessness," she said.

The strain on school district resources compounds the traditional problems faced by homeless students, who experts say traditionally fare worse in academic assessments and have lower graduation rates.

"They're dealing with a lot of uncertainty and trauma," said Sheffield with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "They might not be getting a good night's sleep living in crowded places, their access to food is limited, the only food they may be getting is at school . . . A lot of their basic needs are not being met, which makes it difficult to focus in the classroom."

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