For Children With ‘No Decent Place,’ Housing Woes Jeopardize Learning

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 17, 1992 22 min read
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When American schoolchildren learn the legends of their nation’s leaders, they are certain to hear about how Abraham Lincoln grew up in a stark log cabin with a dirt floor and only the light of a candle to study by at night.

For many of those children, the struggle to learn amid daunting home conditions is more than a story out of a history book.

At least three million U.S. households live in housing considered deficient under federal guidelines. Such housing may, for example, lack ample heat and hot water, or pose lead and electrical hazards.

Compounding these problems for many youngsters are severely crowded conditions and neighborhood environments in which their sleep is disrupted by neighbors’ quarrels, their peace of mind is disturbed by gunfire, and their safety is threatened by gangs and drug dealers.

“Here we are talking about school readiness when we have this really shocking circle of children who don’t find it safe to move around their own neighborhood, and live in home conditions that might threaten them as well,’' said Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “If we don’t define our efforts to improve the quality of education in this larger setting, we will be engaged in an exercise of diversion.’'

While many acknowledge an implicit link between decrepit or unsafe living spaces and poor outcomes for children, however, housing by and large is not an issue that has mobilized the education community.

“Educators have grown up a lot about not assuming everyone has two parents,’' said Joyce Epstein, the co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children’s Learning at Johns Hopkins University.

“But they often slip [when talking] about ‘your room,’ ‘where you do your homework,’ and some of the accouterments people have or things they own,’' she said.

“Housing is an anchor and a first step for families,’' said Susan Malus, the coordinator of Project Advancement for the Enterprise Foundation, a national organization that works to convert dilapidated buildings into attractive low-rent housing with services for families.

“If children don’t have a safe, secure place to live,’' Ms. Malus added, “it’s hard for them to have the kind of emotional stability that allows them to grow and develop and succeed in the world.’'

Segregation, Mobility

Besides the oppressive physical surroundings many children must contend with, child advocates and housing experts say, their chances of success are diminished by housing patterns that place the “have nots’’ in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with ailing schools and few positive role models.

And the continual quest for new housing by families seeking better conditions or trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collector, educators say, compromises the emotional stability and learning continuity of their children.

“A lot of people don’t have a clue about the lack of the most basic prerequisites for learning’’ that housing problems present, said Gary Orfield, the director of the Metropolitan Opportunity Project and a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University.

Such things, he said, include “being able to go to school for a year or two [in the same place], having a place to study, being able to walk to and from school without being threatened by gangs, [and having a] public library that is open or that they can get to without risking their lives.’'

“The whole direction of education reform has been toward school-level change,’' Mr. Orfield said. “But the presumption has been that there’s a stable community to change the school for.’'

Higher on Public Agenda

The rioting in Los Angeles this spring has helped move housing, along with urban-related issues in general, to a higher spot on the public-policy agenda.

The topic is being examined by housing panels in both chambers of the Congress, which are expected to complete their work this week on a bill to reauthorize the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990.

According to a 1991 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “A Place to Call Home,’' 7 percent of nonpoor households (1 million) and nearly one in every five poor households (2.2 million) in 1989 lived in units classified as physically deficient by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (See box, page 21.)

Three out of 10 poor black households occupied such housing.

In addition, the report noted, 1 million poor households were in overcrowded quarters. The problem was most severe for Hispanic households: More than one in four lived in overcrowded housing in 1989.

The report linked a sharp decline in the availability of low-rent housing in the last two decades to a retrenchment in government housing programs and a drop in the number of low-income units in the private rental market. The shrinking stock of private rental housing was linked to such factors as gentrification, condominium conversion, and the abandonment of deteriorated units, the study suggested.

At the same time, the report noted, cuts in cash welfare benefits eroded families’ housing purchasing power. In all but six states, it said, the cost of a modest two-bedroom apartment exceeds the welfare grant for a three-person family with no other income.

Such problems were not limited to cities; the 1989 American Housing Survey found that of the 3.6 million poor families living in rural areas, 2.3 million spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and 800,000 lived in substandard housing.

‘The Tools Are Inadequate’

The affordable-housing act offered grants to states, localities, and community groups to develop various rental and home-ownership programs and set up initiatives to ease home ownership for low-income tenants.

Resident management of public housing--long promoted by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack F. Kemp--is viewed by many as a promising way to combat crime and mismanagement.

But such proposals, while helpful, “don’t address the fundamental problem: that people who don’t already live in [low-income housing] have practically no opportunity to get into it,’' Barry Zigas, the president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, argued.

While the housing-bill proposals pending in the Congress would expand some housing initiatives, “the tools are really inadequate compared to the need,’' he said, and the expansion may not survive the appropriations process.

Social workers say many families wait months or years for subsidized housing. According to the Low-Income Housing Information Service, only about one-third of the nation’s poor receive any form of government housing aid.

As a result of the housing squeeze, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report noted, in 1989 more than half of all poor renter households--3.5 million households--spent at least half of their income on rent and utilities; 5.1 million spent more than 30 percent.

‘It Is Poverty That Kills’

The ill effects of homelessness on children have been documented by researchers and highlighted by child-advocacy groups. They include health problems, frequent developmental delays, and a high rate of placement in special education.

But the effects of poor housing--as distinguished from actual homelessness--on children’s schooling and well-being have received far less fanfare.

“We have been trying for the last four years to see the continuum of problems between bad housing and homelessness,’' Lisa Mihaly, a senior program associate for the Children’s Defense Fund, said. “There is a tremendous amount of appropriate concern about homeless children, but very little about the impact really bad housing has.’'

“Even the research out there on homeless children doesn’t do justice to the problem, because operationally they define it as kids not housed at the moment,’' said James Garbarino, the president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development and the author of a new book, Children in Danger: Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence.

“Yet many of the kids who are not homeless are in situations that are very transient and impermanent,’' he said.

In studies conducted by the Bank Street College of Education, said William R. Rath, a researcher involved in the studies who is now a consultant to the American Red Cross, “what we discovered was that there were very few significant differences between the two groups [homeless and poorly housed children], indicating what most service providers have known for years.’'

“It is really poverty that kills most people,’' he said, “and most of the damage has been done before they fall into homelessness.’'

‘No Decent Place’

Despite a dearth of data on children in poor housing, the adults who work with them paint a graphic picture through anecdotes.

“For teachers, one of the most difficult and heartbreaking problems they come up against is when a child has no decent place to go home to,’' said Sandra Feldman, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

In the “skid row’’ section of Los Angeles, where many children live in hotels, “lots of times kids come to school really tired because they’ve been up all night because of what happens in and around their apartments and hallways--fights, drugs, squabbles,’' said Joe Kelly, a resource specialist at the city’s 9th Street Elementary School.

“If anybody in their household is awake, they’re awake,’' Nancy Sharrett, another teacher there, added.

“A lot of times after weekends they are kind of wild ... because they have been kept protected in their apartments and have not been out at all, or have been left to run around their hotels,’' Mr. Kelly said.

“There are no play areas whatsoever,’' he said. “There is no quiet place, no clean place for them to do their homework. Quite often, they don’t have their homework, or [it] is mutilated.’'

Rudi Eagleson, a teacher at the San Pedro Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, which serves many immigrant families, said that often students live in one room with their parents in noisy buildings “where on the whole floor there is one restroom,’' located in areas “where you’d be scared to walk by yourself.’'

At school, many “are not capable of sitting in a classroom and thinking,’' she said. “Sometimes they do anything to get your attention.’'

A teacher in the Bucktown area of Chicago observed that “many children think nothing of rats and mice running around their buildings, or of having to move constantly because of cockroach problems.’'

“I’ve seen children loaded up with [flea and animal] bites, or who didn’t have a tub to bathe in,’' added the teacher, who did not want her school or her name cited.

‘In the Way of Education’

Workers in the “Beethoven Project,’' a multiple-service effort to improve the life chances and school readiness of children in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, have described the difficulties of meeting high public expections in a setting that is antithetical to nurturing. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1989.)

The Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Kotlowitz also detailed the impact of harrowing housing conditions in his 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, the story of two boys growing up in another Chicago housing project, the Henry Horner Homes.

The Community League of West 159th Street in New York’s Harlem, which was organized in 1952 to aid children in educational pursuits, got involved in housing development after hearing the litany of housing woes recited by children at a neighborhood study center.

“The children told us how freezing it was in their apartments, or that they didn’t have hot water and their mothers couldn’t get the super to give them these necessities,’' said Lucille Bulger, the league’s director.

“Coming down their steps there might be an addict in the hallway or someone lying across the steps drunk,’' she said. “They would tell us about how they had to step over somebody.’'

As a result of those talks, Ms. Bulger said, the league began working to spur landlords to be more responsive. It also formed a partnership with the Enterprise Foundation to help rehabilitate poor housing.

“We got into housing because we found these concerns were getting in the way of [children’s] education and their health,’' Ms. Bulger said.

Maria Riera Banegas, who was helped into better housing through the Progress of Peoples Development Corporation, the housing arm of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, said she and her husband and four children shared two bedrooms in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment that sometimes lacked heat and hot water.

Besides feeling isolated and stressed, Ms. Banegas said, her children had only their beds to study on. They “didn’t have the time, the concentration, and the space to themselves to accomplish what they wanted,’' she said.

“Every time I cross the bridge [by her old neighborhood] I get so amazed how people can keep living in those conditions,’' she added.

Threat of Violence

The pernicious effects of decrepit housing, experts point out, are often amplified by neighborhood violence.

“It’s a dangerous place,’' Lois Smith, a teaching assistant, said of the area around Chicago’s Beethoven Elementary School, where she works. “A lot of times there is shooting, and [children] have to run for cover or stay in the house.’'

When a shooting or killing occurs, she said, “they have trouble concentrating--they talk about what happened.’'

Children frequently exposed to violence “are preoccupied during the day and have difficulty sleeping at night,’' Mr. Garbarino of the Erikson Institute said. They also develop stomachaches, headaches, stuttering, and facial tics, he added, which “divert attention from schoolwork both at home and in the classroom.’'

Another common reaction, he said, is that “kids are either so aggressive or depressed because of their experiences that they are disruptive in class.’'

And children’s fears about their own safety going to and from school contribute to absenteeism. The Washington Post recently reported on a court case in which one youth’s chronic truancy was attributed to threats that he would be beat up between home and school. Such concerns, some child advocates say, are not adequately addressed by programs such as Wisconsin’s Learnfare, which cuts families’ welfare checks when teenagers miss too much school.

Frequent Moves

The high mobility rate among families seeking better or more affordable housing brings another set of school disruptions.

Some educators interviewed for this article described working in areas with student-mobility rates of from 50 percent to 150 percent.

In such schools, said Kati Haycock, the director of the education roundtable at the American Association for Higher Education, “What you typically find is stability among maybe half to two-thirds, but incredibly rampant mobility among the remainder’’ of the students.

“It’s a very big social-integration problem,’' Ms. Epstein of Johns Hopkins University said. “It’s hard to be a new kid every second week.’'

Besides the emotional impact on children, educators point out, the moves seriously jeopardize the continuity of instruction.

“It has a profound effect on one’s attempt to maintain a continuous program for kids,’' said Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

The summary of an upcoming monograph on student mobility from the Council for Aid to Education says: “Children who change schools frequently typically do not do as well academically as their nonmobile peers--and critically, may not attend a particular school long enough or consistently enough to profit from even the most dramatic school improvement.’'

‘Draining’ for Teachers

When upward of one-third of the students in a class constantly turns over, Ms. Haycock noted, it can be devastating to teacher morale. In her previous work with high-mobility schools in California, she recalled, teachers “who started out the most buoyant, idealistic, and hopeful’’ eventually began to lower their expectations.

“Lots of times it takes quite a while for these kids to make an adjustment, and just when you think they have, they’re gone,’' Mr. Kelly of the 9th Street School in Los Angeles said. “It’s really draining and really depressing.’'

Nancy R. Malone, a teacher at the Claremont (Calif.) High School for developmentally disabled students, said that because of her school’s specialized nature, most students who move short distances stay enrolled. But their frequent moves still cause them to “lose some sort of identity or stability,’' she said. “It shows in their schoolwork.’'

The moves also stir consternation when there is a medical problem.

“When there are emergencies, we can’t get through to [parents] and we can’t find them,’' Ms. Malone said.

“Our files are always out of date as far as emergency numbers,’' Mr. Kelly echoed.

Records, Transportation

Another academic consequence of constant moves is that students’ school records may not follow them, or may take weeks to catch up.

While families are instructed to take papers granting permission to test or to place students in special education to the next school, Mr. Kelly said, “we have drawers and drawers of records that have never been called for.’'

“Somebody is always evaluating their learning instead of getting around to teaching them,’' said Kathie Cheever, the president of Housing For All, the Metro Denver Fair Housing Center. The agency is the coordinating body for a housing-integration effort that is getting under way with support from school and city officials.

In Denver, Ms. Cheever noted, some schools with high student mobility have coordinated their efforts to provide transportation so children can stay at the same school when housing problems or evictions force them to move.

Ms. Haycock pointed out, however, that such strategies take “aggressive action’’ to impress on parents the value of school stability.

“I think many districts have policies that either explicitly permit or would be quite happy, on parental request,’' to let students stay when they move, she said. “Unfortunately, families in most of these situations are so stressed out that it’s not even going to occur to them to try.’'

Even when schools and parents are amenable, transportation is likely to be a barrier, said Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association.

Gretchen Funk, a housing specialist for the Progress of Peoples Development Corporation, recalled one mother who commuted two-and-a-half hours a day from her Bronx shelter to avoid uprooting her children from their Brooklyn school.

“The bigger problem is the instability of housing that leads kids to have to go to another school,’' Mr. Geiger said. “We’ve got to have stable housing conditions for all these reasons.’'

Different Worlds

At the root of that instability, Mr. Orfield of Harvard University suggested, are inequities in the distribution of American housing.

“We think discrimination by race is illegitimate, but to discriminate by what you can afford in housing is fine,’' he said. “The richer you are, the more subsidy you get in terms of the tax system.’'

Housing patterns based on such policies, he argued, play a key role in controlling children’s “access to schools, communities, neighborhoods, and friends.’'

“Most American middle-class families believe they have a right to certain types of schools based completely on housing and what they can afford to buy,’' he said. “Except when we have desegregation orders in place, we have distributed opportunity by housing.’'

Recognizing the interrelationship between housing and school racial balance, Palm Beach County, Fla., has launched an unprecedented effort--involving the schools and housing developers--to shift its focus from busing children to integrating neighborhoods. (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)

In his forthcoming book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, describes how segregation in American cities causes neighborhoods to decay and “determines the kind of social and physical environment [children] face and grow up in.’'

But beyond racial segregation, Mr. Garbarino of the Erikson Institute contended, housing inequities result in “the geographic concentration of poor, high-risk families.’'

“When high-need, low-resource families are dispersed more widely,’' he said, “it means that the schools have a more heterogeneous clientele, which provides positive role modeling, takes the pressure off special-education resources, and creates a climate where there is a better chance for schools to succeed.’'

Data suggesting improvements in the grades, attendance, and attitudes of Boston minority students sent to suburban schools under the 26-year old Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, reported recently by The Boston Globe, underscore the impact of neighborhood factors on schooling.

The view from his Chicago office, Mr. Garbarino said, offers a study in such contrasts.

“I can see the Cabrini-Green public-housing project to the left, and to the right, an upscale residential area,’' he said. “They are only blocks away, but worlds away in terms of children’s experiences.’'

To help bridge those gaps, some suggest, schools should seek input in housing-development decisions.

“Schools should insist that they be consulted about housing decisions--particularly the location of subsidized housing,’' Mr. Orfield said. He also urged schools to work with developers to provide housing that attracts a “broad range of people’’ and suggested that families with rental certificates receive more counseling to move out of areas with “dysfunctional’’ schools.

Family Services Critical

Recognizing that low-income families are often isolated from government services, some community groups, developers, and housing authorities have worked to arrange support services in housing projects.

“Once you give people a place to live, you can’t just stop there,’' said Ms. Malus of the Enterprise Foundation. “It is only going to work if people see it as a first step and a way to having a real future.’'

Among such efforts:

  • The Enterprise Foundation, which was founded by the prominent developer and urban planner James Rouse, is breaking ground for three “community-life centers’’ in New York City. They will house pilot projects offering full-day Montessori-method child care while providing adults opportunities for long-term training, education, and work experience.
  • Progress of Peoples, responding to concerns about unsafe schools from families in one of its housing developments in New York City, raised funds to send children to a newly renovated parochial school next door.
  • In the mid-1980’s, the Omaha Housing Authority launched several efforts to support children’s schooling, including study centers, scholarship funds, and help with food, clothing, and transportation.
  • The proposals of Secretary Kemp of èõä highlight such services as job training and anti-drug counseling.
  • An amendment offered by U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, to the housing-reauthorization measure recently cleared by a House subcommittee would expand two service-oriented programs: Family Investment Centers, which provides grants to spur housing authorities to offer residents information about education, job training, and other services, and Early-Childhood Development Services, which offers grants to nonprofit groups to provide day care at or near public housing.

Ms. Waters’s amendment would also expand the Family Unification program, which provides assistance through the federal Section 8 housing program to families whose children are at risk of being placed in out-of-home care due to housing problems.

Child-welfare agencies, noted David Leiderman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, have been “moving into the housing business’’ to help develop housing for families in that predicament.

The Family Services Project of Bank Street College, working with the National Center for Children in Poverty, is completing a study of seven successful transitional-housing programs that provide support services to help families move toward more permanent housing.

“It is our hope that this study will help to better illustrate how important it is at the level of policy to acknowledge the continuum of housing concerns shared alike by homeless and housed families living in chronic poverty,’' the project proposal stated.

Places To Play

A problem closely related to housing, Mr. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said, is that the planning of the nation’s cities has largely overlooked children’s needs.

In a 1988 survey of 5th- and 8th-grade students by the foundation, more than half reported that there were “not a lot of good places to play in their neighborhoods.’'

In a recent report setting out a strategy to meet the first national education goal--which states that all children will enter school ready to learn by the year 2000--Mr. Boyer called for a carefully planned network of outdoor and indoor parks and school-readiness centers in libraries, malls, airports, and businesses.

“It’s more than gimmicks,’' he said. “It’s an attitude that shows whether we really care about children and realize [the importance of] the physical conditions in which they live.’'

Many poor urban families, Mr. Boyer noted, have been confined to “massive impersonal housing units that are really impossible for children to cope with and often overwhelm them.’'

“People just don’t realize the enormous isolation kids feel in these crowded vertical neighborhoods,’' added Milbrey McLaughlin, a professor of education and public policy at Stanford University.

Learning ‘in Spite of Odds’

Besides jeopardizing children’s safety, play, and learning, housing problems can impede parents from becoming involved in schools.

When schools are not neighborhood-based, Mr. Garbarino said, “it diminishes the potential of those schools to get the same kind of allegiance from parents.’'

Besides transportation, safety may be a factor, he said, noting that some schools “can’t get parents to come in for P.T.A. meetings at night because it’s an act of folly to go out.’'

At the same time, Mr. Orfield of Harvard observed, troubled schools in gentrifying areas often fail to enlist the involvement of the new, more well-to-do parents, with the result that “parents leave when their children are school-age, or put them in private school.’'

“Schools should see those parents as a resource and reach out to them,’' he said.

It is the involvement of parents--not their housing situation--that is the critical factor in children’s success in school, the teacher in the Bucktown area of Chicago argued.

“I’m sure you could find parents from ‘good’ neighborhoods who don’t have the right parental skills to help their kids,’' she said. “It’s not so much the housing situation but the family environment [and] parents backing up the institution.’'

Even amid the worst housing circumstances, that teacher and others pointed out, are students who are persevering and doing well.

“We have kids who are working at it in school,’' Ms. Feldman of New York City said, and, “in spite of tremendous odds,’' are doing well.

“Who knows,’' she asked, “what they could have done if they had decent places to live in?’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as For Children With ‘No Decent Place,’ Housing Woes Jeopardize Learning


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