How to help homeless students around the holidays and beyond

(CNN)Come Christmas time, most children put together lengthy wish lists for toys and goodies for Santa to deliver.

But for those whose wishes are listed on The Sugarplum Sled's website, the requests are much more modest.
One child asked for a single Snickers bar. Another wanted an Amazon gift card, then added "anything will be appreciated." Others asked for sheets and towels.
The Sugarplum Sled's charitable drive was organized by Erica Hill and four other New York City moms to benefit homeless and underprivileged students in two Manhattan schools, PS 76 and 188.
    When Hill reached out to the schools and obtained the wish lists of over 800 students, she was heartbroken to see children who need so much ask for "such basic things" as a hat or a coloring book.
    "It's heartbreaking, in a city with so much money, that there are any homeless kids," Hill says.
    In New York City alone, over 114,000 students were identified as homeless in the 2018-19 school year, according to New York State Education Department data posted by Advocates for Children of New York, a local nonprofit organization. That's one in 10 students, and 85% of them are Black or Hispanic. The trend has grown over 70% in the last decade, the data shows.
    National data on the phenomenon paints an even more dramatic picture.

    A national crisis, and a vicious cycle

    Homelessness among students is a national crisis, and one we don't talk about enough.
    Data from the Department of Education shows that over 1.3 million students experienced homelessness in the 2016-17 school year, the highest number ever registered.
    Homelessness among students is especially concerning because it impacts their chances of breaking free from their situation and securing a better future.
    Research suggests that homelessness is a risk factor for low educational attainment just as low educational attainment is a risk factor for homelessness.
    A recent study by Chapin Hall found that youth not graduating from high school are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness as young adults.
    On the flip side of that, the impact of homelessness on educational attainment is undeniable, with only 64% of homeless students graduating high school compared to 77.6% of poor but housed children, and 84% for all students, according to a study by Education Leads Home, a national campaign focused on improving educational outcomes for homeless students.

    No place like school for the holidays

    School lunches are a a reliable source for food for homeless students.
    The holidays are especially difficult for homeless students, says Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit organization focused on the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness.
    Not only there is the psychological aspect of not having the same experience as fellow classmates, who get to decorate their homes, receive presents and celebrate -- there's also a very tangible consequence. School is for many homeless students a source of stability, food and basic needs. When school is closed, Duffield explains, that all goes away for some time.

    How can you help?

    • The first step is to learn more about the issue, and to become more familiar with the root causes of homelessness, which are complex and include the lack of affordable housing, poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, domestic violence and addiction. "We can't work toward ending homelessness until we have a shared, accurate understanding of it," says Christina Endres from the National Center for Homeless Education, a technical assistance center for the Department of Education.
    • The second step is to broaden our concept of homelessness. When we think about this phenomenon, many of us picture single individuals begging for money at street corners, or sleeping outside, but that's not the full picture. "The face of homelessness is children and families, and these children are in school everyday alongside children who are in permanent housing," says Randi Levine from Advocates for Children of New York, a local nonprofit focused on the rights of homeless students.
    • Since schools are such an important tether to society for homeless students and their families, supporting schools is a great way to support the neediest in your community. Start by connecting with the Homeless Education Liaisons that each school district is required to have under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. These people are the most tapped in to the needs of your local homeless student community, and can advise on what type of support is most urgently needed. Call your school district and ask who their Homeless Education Liaison is, or go through the State Homeless Education Program Coordinator's directory available here.
    • If you are looking to organize a donation drive in a community where shelters are available, it's a good idea to call the shelter providers and ask specific questions about their needs. Diapers and baby care items are great, but so are gym shoes for older children and high school students, everyday clothing and sports attire, and less affordable items like prom outfits or special uniforms to participate in extracurricular activities. Be mindful that needs vary and check before donating.
    • If you are able to donate financially, many organizations can put your money to good use. Find an initiative in your community by asking school liaisons and shelter providers for guidance, or use Charity Navigator as a search tool.

    A year-round emergency

    While this is the season for generosity, it's important to remember that homeless students need year-round support.
    For example, think of the summer months when schools are closed, and times when inclement weather forces students to not go to school. When school is not in session, homeless students lose a reliable source for food, social connection and other basic needs such as access to showers and storage space for their belongings.
    "Schools are always struggling to meet the needs of the students because they go beyond what is provided by classroom funding," says Endres.
    Many schools organize food and clothing drives to be able to help with their students' basic needs and normal school experiences "like prom and athletics, that are otherwise out of reach for students when they're homeless." When it comes to something that's a longer term investment in kids, "schools can always use mentors and tutors," Endres adds.
    The importance of extracurricular activities can't be understated. Activities such as the school band, sports or drama are "the antidote" to many of the negative downsides of being homeless while studying, according to Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection.
    These experiences offer normalcy and regularity to homeless students, along with a sense of belonging that keeps them engaged in school.

    Santa Claus is coming to town

    For the students of PS 76 and PS 188 in New York City, Christmas will be merrier this year.
    The Sugarplum Sled was able to fulfill all the requests from the students, who listed several items for people to choose from.
    Most people, says organizer Erica Hill, went above and beyond procuring all the items on the students' wish lists, and then some.
    Up until last week, Hill and her team were able to fulfill about 50% of the gift requests just by reaching out to their network of family and friends, and were prepared to purchase the rest on their own dime.
    A retweet from New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez changed things dramatically. "All of a sudden we had all these people coming to our site," Hill said. "Everything just filled up so quickly."
      Encouraged by what they could accomplish in a little over four weeks, Hill and the others are looking ahead to next year, and hope to expand their reach.
      "Imagine if we could grow this to include 1.5 million children," Hill says. Here's to hoping.