Safety Net Autumn 2010 - Facing School Year as a Homeless Child

Facing the New School Year as a Homeless Child

By Sarah Murphy

Many children experience excitement at the beginning of the school year. Sure, they have to start to get up early and do homework, but at the same time, they look forward to seeing their friends again, talking about their summer vacations, and showing off their new clothes and backpacks.

For homeless boys and girls, it isn't such a joyous time. In our Bound for Success After-School and Day Camp (BFS), we see increased depression and anxiety. For many of our campers, this will be the first time they have had to start school as a homeless student. For others, they are burdened with knowing that this is yet another year where they won't have a place of their own to study, read, or do homework in peace.

They feel lonely and "different." Many of our campers have had to switch schools, leaving them with no social group to greet them as they walk into the classroom for the first time. They don't have the newest clothes and are forced to go to school with their beat up backpack and notebooks from last year - some, with nothing. It is hard for them to integrate into the school because they may live further away than the other students and are afraid of being transferred again. They avoid making new friends because they don't want to share their "secret" that they are homeless. To have friends over to play or study after school is strictly not permitted.

The uncertainty, shame, and anxiety often manifest themselves as behavioral issues. Luckily, our BFS staff is there to mediate the problems and provide one-on-one counseling to students when they need it. We are able to help them turn their thinking around, and show them that they are not alone. We also teach them the social skills they need as they enter a new school.

In fact, when one of our campers was asked to write about going back to school, she had this to say: "I can't wait to meet new friends and get away from the shelter. I am excited to get a new bookbag and cool school supplies."

With new backpacks from Project: Back to School and a fresh perspective, our campers were able to get past their negative feelings and approach the school year with a smile and their heads up.

Bound for Success is a year-round program that encourages academic and social development in children living in a New York City homeless shelter. During the school year, we have an after-school program, in which our counselors provide 30 homeless girls and boys with tutoring, homework assistance, as well as fun activities, such as dancing and arts and crafts.

In the summer, this turns into an all-day camp which gives an alternative to spending the long summer days on the streets, often without parental supervision. We give these kids the chance to explore the city on field trips to places like Chelsea Piers and the US Open. At the same time, we help them fill educational gaps through learning activities.