Beating the odds, more than 100 homeless students in New York City graduate high school

They woke up each morning in a New York City homeless shelter, but they didn't let adverse circumstances block their path to success.

Last Thursday night, the city's Department of Homeless Services honored more than 100 high school graduates who made it through school while homeless. The teens are now heading to college, including Cornell, New York University and Stony Brook University.

"The strength and resilience of these young people is inspiring," New York Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio said in a news release. "And it is this same strength and resilience that has prepared them for anything and will propel them forward as they join our next generation of future leaders."

Each of the students received a laptop and a duffel bag full of college essentials.

One of the honorees, Alexus Lawrence, was her high school's valedictorian and plans to attend Brooklyn College next year. She dreams of becoming a pediatrician.

"I'm just thinking of how far I've come," Lawrence told CNN affiliate WABC. "You have your head down because it's shameful; some people may bully you if they knew you lived in the shelter system."

Lawrence's father, Henry, is a chef for a local hospital but was forced to move the family into a homeless shelter when their rent rose.

"They're homeless because of the economics, the gap between rents and income," NYC Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks told WABC.

Data shows that 114,658 students are homeless in New York City, according to the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students.

With 1.1 million students attending schools in the city, that means 1 in 10 is homeless, enough to fill Yankee Stadium twice, the group says.

New York City has been taking steps to curb homelessness, particularly among students. Last year, the Department of Education announced that it was investing an additional $12 million into programs supporting students living in temporary housing, which included hiring school-based community coordinators to help students with housing instability.

NYC homelessness in Brooklyn, Bronx largely due to domestic violence, evictions, report says

Domestic violence and evictions are displacing families, particularly in eastern Brooklyn and the South Bronx, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness's report noted that nearly 12,700 families, with some 10,750 children under 5, lived in city shelters at the end of 2018, a 55% increase from 2011. Although data shows domestic violence directed 30% of households into the shelter system — and evictions, 25% — the trajectory often includes multiple stressors, according to Chloe Stein, the principal policy analyst for the institute. 

"These triggers of homelessness don’t occur in a vacuum," Stein said, noting the report culled data from the city and U.S. Census Bureau and pulled from interviews with families in city shelters. "These families were experiencing trauma on top of trauma, where they were experiencing violence, then lost their job, and then they were kicked out of their homes."

The report pinpointed a few neighborhoods, where families struggled to remain in their homes. In East New York, 650 families entered the shelter system; followed by Mott Haven, with 648 families; and Bedford-Stuyvesant, with 550 families, according to data from the fiscal year 2015.

Stein said these neighborhoods are home to more residents who lack high school diplomas and have higher rates of unemployment and low-wage jobs.

"For homeless and low-income students, education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty," the report said. 

Stein recommended that the city tailor its efforts to curb homelessness based on the neighborhood. She said the city should consider opening job training and educational centers in neighborhoods with few good job options to assist families before they wind up in a shelter. 

"Every neighborhood has different drivers of family homelessness," Stein said. 

Issac McGinn, a representative for the city's Department of Homeless Services, said the overall number of homeless New Yorkers has leveled off over the past two years. He said the department has worked to help families exit the shelter system through its ongoing five-year plan, called Turning the Tide on Homelessness.

"Our transformation plan puts people first, offering them the opportunity to get back on their feet in their home boroughs, closer to support networks, including schools," McGinn said in a statement. 

New York’s Toughest Homeless Problem

Thousands of people live in the streets and refuse to leave. A modest number now accept shelter in “safe havens.” Bonnie Coover, a nurse practitioner, has been searching for people who need help in parks, on sidewalks and beneath railroad tracks since 2016.

By Nikita Stewart

  • May 30, 2019

They are the most visible sign of New York’s homelessness crisis: A man covered in dirt sits outside a subway station in Jamaica, Queens. Another man, cross-legged and ragged on a Midtown sidewalk, begs for money. A dozen people form an encampment in Central Park.

While the overwhelming majority — about 95 percent — of the more than 78,000 people who qualify as homeless in New York actually have temporary shelter, others live on the streets, for a host of reasons. They represent a persistent challenge. Since an annual count began more than a decade ago, that population has never fallen below about 2,300, and it hit near-record levels under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But there has been some recent cause for cautious optimism. For the second year in a row, the number of people known as chronically homeless, or “unsheltered," has fallen.

The decline, while modest, may be traced to more intense outreach efforts and an expansion of so-called safe havens. These specialized shelters have fewer restrictions and a streamlined application process to try to quickly place people into permanent housing. “We’re using every tool that we can develop to try to help people rebuild their lives,” said Steven Banks, the city commissioner of social services.

There are still thousands of people living in the open overnight. An annual count conducted in late January estimated 3,588 people fell into that category.

They are often grappling with a constellation of problems, so helping them means not only providing shelter but perhaps finding a drug rehabilitation program, a psychiatrist, a medical doctor or even guidance in a getting birth certificate or Social Security card.

Some prefer the independence of living in the street and balk at having to comply with the rules of the city’s shelter system, such as curfews or sobriety.

That differs greatly from the kind of assistance the city gives to families with children, who often simply need shelter and a voucher to find an apartment.

The number of chronically homeless people climbed to almost 4,000 after Mr. de Blasio took office, when he abruptly stopped opening shelters, including safe havens, in response to complaints from elected officials and residents who said the city was opening shelters without adequate community input. Other factors contributed to the increase, from high rents to a jump in both the number of patients discharged from mental health facilities and inmates released from jail and prison

The city changed course, and the number of beds in safe haven shelters has tripled to 1,800, with plans to add hundreds more, Mr. Banks said.

“A lot of us were saying, ‘We need beds, and we need these kinds of beds,’” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, the chief executive of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit that first started the safe haven model. “Better late than never.”

Safe havens are an alternative to the city’s more traditional dormitory-style shelters for single adults, which some people avoid because they have a reputation as unsafe and drug-ridden.

Hylema Aiken, who used to be part of a clutch of people who set up camp each night in Central Park near 110th Street, said she used to prefer to take her chances

Once-Homeless NYC Teen Gets Accepted Into A Dozen Colleges

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A Bronx girl who overcame homelessness to be accepted to a dozen colleges, but now a new challenge lies ahead.

One college acceptance is cause for celebration, but now Brianna Watts has 12 reasons to celebrate, reports CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff.

“Shocking, I guess you could say shocking,” she says of her success.

The 18-year-old Bronx teen got into every college of the dozen she applied to, beating the odds in not only in college admissions but in life.

She was brought up at times homeless by a then-crack-addicted mother who spent time in prison

Brianna stayed positive.

“I know there people worse than me who didn’t have a place to sleep or food to eat, and I still had that even though I was in a shelter,” she said.

“I always encouraged them to be better than me,” said mother Bridgette Gibbs.

Hard work paid off as the Bronxwood Preparatory Academy Student who earned honor roll every semester.

“I tried not to let my circumstance define me, who I was as a person,” said Brianna. “I went from getting 75s and 65s my ninth grade year to getting 90s my 10th grade year.”

After all that hard work, the hardest part ahead: paying for college. Even state schools.

“Room and board would be between $14,000 and $18,000,” she said.

After doing all the right things, she won’t stop now.

“I’m going to college no matter what, I don’t care how much I have to borrow,” she said.

Her past turned out not to be any deterrent for her.

“It turned out to be great because look at who I am now,” she said.

“If you can help the next person climb up because you climbed up, and be resilient,” said mom Gibbs.

That resilience is thanks in part to supportive housing run by WIN – Women In Need – an organization run by former city council speaker Christine Quinn.

“I think the fact that college isn’t accessible for all, that it’s not out-and-out free for someone like Brianna, is a terrible condemnation of education in our country,” said Quinn. “But we can’t be held back by that, we are just going to overcome it.”

As Brianna considers a dozen college choices, she’s inspired by her own mother who went back to school herself.

Harder for Homeless to Enter N.Y.C. Shelters, Report Finds

More homeless families are being denied permanent shelter in New York City, and many are being forced to reapply multiple times before the city finds them eligible to enter the system — two trends that burden already fragile families, according to a new report by the Coalition for the Homeless.

State eligibility requirements have been tightened, a change made in November at the request of the city, which is grappling with a strained shelter system that is struggling trying to meet demands. Though the city recently announced a plan to open 90 new shelters over the next five years, about 18,500 homeless people are temporarily staying in hotels and so-called cluster apartments in the meantime.

In its report, released on Tuesday, the Coalition gave the state and the city near-failing grades on its eligibility requirements, and found that the city could reduce homelessness more quickly than it has promised. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to reduce the number of people living in shelters by 2,500 people over five years, a decrease of 4 percent from the current 60,000 people in the primary system.

According to the report, the city could achieve a reduction of about 25 percent in all of the city’s shelter systems by 2020 if the city and state adopted policies to open more affordable housing and rental subsidies for homeless people. “We don’t want the expectations to be that we can’t reduce homelessness in a meaningful way,” said Giselle Routhier, the policy director at the Coalition.

The application process became more onerous after the city petitioned the state to give them more leeway to deny shelter. Homeless people are required once again to provide documentation from multiple sources and are subjected to city investigators. Children often miss school during the application process.

The Coalition found that 42 percent of applying families were approved for shelter in December, a drop from a high of 50 percent found eligible in October. The percentage of families required to apply multiple times also rose to 45 percent from 37 percent from July to December.

KayKay Knight, 32, who has a disk disease, applied for shelter last year when the stairs in her uncle’s Brooklyn home became too difficult for her to manage, she said. Ms. Knight, who has a five-year-old daughter, said she was denied permanent shelter roughly 12 times.

She was in provisional shelter while the city investigated her case, and her uncle said he had felt harassed, creating more animosity within her family. “He didn’t want me there,” she said. “Just imagine how many times they went to his home.”

With help from the Legal Aid Society, Ms. Knight qualified in November, moving to a shelter where she can easily access a bathroom.

The Coalition still says there is more that needs to be done. The report gave the city poor rankings for failing to adequately meet the needs of mentally ill and disabled homeless people, and said it was unimpressed with its “code blue” policy of broadening access to shelters when the temperature falls to 32 degrees between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.

NYC’s Catholic Church officially opens low-income housing for the homeless in the Bronx, built on church land, overseen by Catholic Charities

By Kerry Burke  and Toni Reinhold

| New York Daily News |

Apr 08, 2019 | 7:55 PM

Archbishop of New York Timothy Cardinal Dolan presides over the official opening of St. Augustine Terrace in the Bronx, a new development that will provide 112 units of affordable housing for low-income families, on April 8, 2019. (Kendall Rodriguez / for New York Daily News)

He worked two jobs and still couldn’t afford a New York City apartment, so for six years James Jennings lived in his car.

Not anymore. Jennings now resides at St. Augustine Terrace at Fulton Ave. and 167th St. in the Bronx, a 112-unit apartment house for low-income families developed by the Catholic Church on property it owns.

On Monday, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and the city’s first lady Chirlane McCray, officially opened the building where a church once stood.

St. Augustine Terrace, which opened to tenants in November, is part of a plan by Catholic Homes New York, the affordable housing unit of Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of New York, to develop 2,000 affordable units over the next 10 years. The Archdiocese is reviewing other Church properties with an eye on affordable housing.

Tenants at St. Augustine need to earn 60% or less of the area’s median income (AMI), said Catholic Charities spokeswoman Maya Bronstein. “Today, the Catholic Church of New York City is taking the lead in ensuring that low-income New Yorkers have access to well-built, well-maintained housing, along with the services to help those with the greatest needs,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, head of Catholic Charities of New York, which oversees 2,336 affordable housing units in the city and Yonkers. He said it will grow to more than 4,000 by 2029.

St. Augustine Terrace in the Bronx, a new development that will provide 112 units of affordable housing for low-income families, April 8, 2019. (Kendall Rodriguez / for New York Daily News)

“This is so much more than a building for Bronx families who struggle to make ends meet,” McCray said. “It provides the peace of mind.”

St. Augustine Terrace was financed under the Department of Housing Preservation & Development’s extremely low and low-income affordability program. Thirty-five units are ear-marked for adults with mental illness. It is also certified energy and environmentally friendly, which can lead to cost savings.

“It’s the first of many coming,” Cardinal Dolan said, pronouncing the building “stunning.” Design and paperwork have begun for five other developments in the Bronx and one in Manhattan.

Referencing a season of penitence culminating with Easter on April 21, Dolan said, “We are in Lent. It’s about fasting, but this is the fasting I want. Housing the oppressed and the homeless.”

Jennings, 53, who has a studio in the new building, says he has the immune system disease lupus and other health issues. Nonetheless, he says he is “inspired every day.”

“I was homeless for six years,” he explained. “I worked two jobs and lived in my 4x4. I’m no longer off the grid. Now, my life really matters. The idea is to get my feet planted and help people through my own experience,” said Jennings, who wants to counsel the homeless.

“We will continue hosting of affordable housing,” Dolan said. “Next week we will observe the gruesome death of a homeless person named Jesus and his resurrection from a donated tomb.”

This 8-year-old homeless refugee is a New York chess champion

In one year, Tanitoluwa Adewumi went from not knowing anything about chess to becoming New York's newest champion.

Adewumi, 8, started learning the game last year at his school, P.S. 116 in New York City. Adewumi and his family came to the U.S. from Nigeria two years ago, seeking religious asylum; they are Christians who fled to escape the terror group Boko Haram. Adewumi's coach, Shawn Martinez, said the third-grader loves to play and is always practicing. "He smiled every time he did anything on the board or learned something new," he told NBC New York. "I could just tell this game was for him."

Over the weekend, Adewumi kept his undefeated streak alive, winning his age group in the New York State Primary Chess Tournament. Adewumi will soon have a place to display his huge trophy: The family has been living in a homeless shelter, but a GoFundMe started for them this week has raised more than $160,000, and they will soon move into their own home.

Adewumi is gearing up for the national championship in May, and is inching closer to his goal. "I want to be the youngest grandmaster in the world," he said.

Catherine Garcia

More than 10,000 kids who started kindergarten in 2012 were homeless at some point before their fifth grade year, an NYU study found.

By Noah Manskar, Patch Staff | Feb 28, 2019 11:07 am ET | Updated Feb 28, 2019 11:11 am ET

NEW YORK — More than 81,000 New York City kids started kindergarten in the fall of 2012. By the time they got to fifth grade, one in eight had been homeless, many forced to stay with family or friends or in a shelter.

That's according to a New York University study released Wednesday that says the city's student homelessness problem is most rampant among the city's youngest kids.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools at NYU's Steinhardt School tracked the 81,669 students who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2012 for five years. Of the 10,312 students — or more than 12 percent — who experienced homelessness before their fifth-grade year, more than a quarter were homeless for all five years and nearly 70 percent were homeless for more than a year, the study found.

"One thing that is a little different about this work is that we were able to follow students over multiple years," Zitsi Mirakhur, one author of the report, said in a statement. "This paints a more complete picture of who experiences homelessness—and in what ways."

More than half the homeless students "doubled up," meaning they lived with family or someone else, while another 30 percent stayed in shelters and close to 10 percent "experienced multiple forms of homelessness," the report says.

The study also revealed stark racial disparities in student homelessness. Nearly 89 percent of the tracked homeless students were black or Latino, the report says — as were almost 95 percent of those who lived in shelters for at least three years.

The latter finding "underscores the disproportionate impact of extreme poverty on NYC's Black and Latino students," Kathryn Hill, the report's other author, said in a statement.

That group of kids is "perhaps the neediest" and also suffered the most stark academic consequences of homelessness, according to the study. Fewer than 20 percent got proficient scores on the state English and math tests, and more than 80 percent were chronically absent, which means they missed roughly a month of school, researchers found.

The kids who experienced homelessness also were not evenly distributed throughout the city, the study found. The western Bronx, upper Manhattan and northern Brooklyn were home to the schools with the highest proportions of them, the report says. And more than 10 percent started kindergarten in The Bronx's District 10 alone, researchers found.

The proportion of young kids experiencing homelessness outpaces the rate for the city's entire school system. Some 114,659 students — more than one in 10 — were identified as homeless in the 2017-18 school year, according to data published in October.

The city has ramped up spending on services for homeless students in recent years, and the Department of Education has worked with the Department of Homeless Services to place families in shelters closer to their youngest child's school.

Schools also often work with community-based organizations that help support students' needs, according to the NYU study. But those partnerships take a variety of forms, and there's a need for better evidence about how they help homeless students, the report says.

"Given that so many NYC students experience homelessness during these years, and that schools often engage in partnerships in an attempt to meet these students' needs, it is important to learn more about what makes these collaborations effective," Research Alliance deputy director Adriana Villavicencio said in a statement.

Lisa Cotoggio celebrates Valentines Day by baking heart-shaped cheesecake sandwiches for people who are homeless


Julia Rose Herman

2/12/19 6:00am

A mystery crime writer turned baker is challenging everyone to help people who are homeless this Valentines Day. Lisa Cotoggio is the founder of a small business she calls “Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches.”

This Valentines day she will be handing out over 150 heart-shaped cheesecake sandwiches to the homeless in Manhattan and Long Island. Cotoggio's desire to help people who are homeless is personal. She is even finishing up a book that is inspired by an encounter she had with a woman who is homeless. She wants to make others feel special this Valentines Day and hopes her efforts will bring more awareness to the crisis of homelessness.

NYC Man's 'Super Soul Party' Helps Homeless Enjoy Big Game

Meir Kay's chance encounter with a homeless man sparked an idea that's turned into an annual event.

By Noah Manskar, Patch Staff | Feb 1, 2019 2:26 pm ET

NEW YORK — Meir Kay spotted a homeless man on the street about two years ago who was holding an unusual sign. He didn't need food or drink, it said — he felt invisible and just wanted someone to talk to.

With the Super Bowl coming up, the encounter gave Kay some inspiration. He invited five homeless people he met on the street to a party for the big game at a rooftop bar on Fifth Avenue, where they ate and hung out among the crowd.

"The Super Bowl is this unofficial holiday where family and friends get together. Someone who doesn't have them in their life could feel even that much more lonesome," said Kay, a 29-year-old video producer from Crown Heights.

Kay turned that impromptu invitation into an annual event called the "Super Soul Party." After planning parties in New York and Los Angeles last year, he's partnered with local shelters and is raising money through GoFundMe to make this year's celebration far bigger than the first.

Kay said he's expecting about 50 homeless people from two shelters and three to 15 more invited from the streets to gather in Chelsea on Sunday for this year's face-off between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.

About 30 volunteers will also attend the bash, which will feature a clothing drive and an on-site barber as well as food and drinks for the guests, he said.

The get-togethers have a clear impact on the homeless people who attend, Kay said.

"They have a sparkle in their eye," he said. "Their energy is on a whole other plane. They can look you in the eye, have a conversation and they're laughing, they're communicating."

Kay has a YouTube channel with more than 210,000 subscribers. Some of his videos have racked up millions of views, including one in which he high-fives people hailing taxis and another in which he turns a subway car into a dance club. His video from last year's Super Soul Party has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

Kay hopes to grow the parties into a larger organization that can host events across the country. He wants to have a party in 20 states next year and eventually expand to every state.

The parties are transformational not just for the homeless guests but also the volunteers, who get to interact with people whom they might not otherwise take the time to talk to, Kay said.

"It really opens up and gets them in touch with a part of themselves that they hadn't had a connection with in so long, and also takes away a stigma, takes away a fear afterwards of being able to approach people who are experiencing homelessness in the streets," Kay said.