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