Hundreds of new school buses are on the way to homeless children after an I-Team report last month exposed some students in shelters traveling more than four hours a day on subways just to get to and from school.
In an exclusive interview, Mayor de Blasio said he was moved by the I-Team story. In response, he promised to have a bus available for every homeless child not within walking distance of school by Jan. 19.
“If they need special school bus service we will provide it,” he said.
Under federal law, children living in shelters and temporary housing are entitled to free transportation due to their vulnerable conditions. But in many cases in New York City, the free transportation they get is not a school bus, but a MetroCard.
The I-Team interviewed children living in homeless shelters and temporary housing that wake long before the sun rises to get to school in time.
“It’s not really fair,” said one mom living with her two children in a shelter who asked that her name not be used out of privacy concerns.
That mother wakes her children at 5:30 a.m., then spends more than two hours commuting to two different schools on four different trains.
"She wakes me up too early," her 6-year-old son Zion told the I-Team.
Zion’s 11-year-old sister said she and her brother aren’t the only ones who are exhausted. Their mother has to cope with "all these challenges," she said -- and so many other people "get to get on a school bus."
The city said buses will initially be available for children in kindergarten through second grade who live more than half a mile from school and for children in grades 3-6 who live more than a mile from school. It wasn't immediately clear if the city planned to expand the routes to include older children, but in most cases, middle school students are not guaranteed buses unless they have special needs.
De Blasio told the I-Team he thinks the new routes will help about 3,600 kids.
He said he doesn’t yet know how much the effort will cost the city, but he will need to operate within the existing Department of Education budget. Previous cost estimates for the additional buses have ranged from $6 to $10 million.
De Blasio said that when he saw the original I-Team report, he said, "We really have to find a different way. I immediately thought it was apparent that these are kids who have been through a lot.”
With 23,522 children living in homeless shelters right now, it’s a challenge to keep them all close to their schools, city officials have said. Department of Education officials said they offered buses to two out of three eligible children living in shelters at the beginning of this school year.
But advocates and social workers have said it wasn’t enough.
"We have students that come in who have woken up at 4 in the morning because their shelters are in Queens," said Emily Haberman, social worker at the Exceed Charter Schools in Brooklyn. She said there are a dozen children at her school with long commutes and no bus.
Jennifer Pringle, who works with the group Advocates for Children, said the new bus routes will make a huge impact.
“I can’t emphasize enough what a game changer this is for so many families,” Pringle said.
De Blasio acknowledged it would ultimately be better to place homeless families closer to their schools. But he says in the meantime, a ride to school will help the families on the road to a better situation.
“I think their lives are going to be a lot better,” he said.