We are in the midst of the lazy, hazy days of summer. But when the days start getting shorter, the nights cooler and Labor Day draws near, our thoughts turn to the annual back-to-school traditions. Even as adults, September evokes memories of the excitement and perhaps, the anxiety, of a new year, new friends and new challenges.
For many children, the main concern will be what they will wear and how they will fit in on that first day. But for 2,000 to 4,000 homeless students in Boston public schools, the worries go much deeper. An order from Boston city council recently stated: “Homeless families are on the rise in Massachusetts with approximately 4,300 families being in Emergency Assistance sheltering. These families lack stability and security. Children in these families are uniquely challenged academically, have higher rates of absenteeism and experience alienation and loss of connection with their peers.”
Inviting friends over for “playdates” is not an option for these children.
Lynn Margherio, CEO and founder of the non-profit Cradles to Crayons, is on the front lines. Her organization meets a critical need. More than 305,000 Massachusetts children 12 years old and younger live in low-income and homeless situations.
Margherio told Spare Change News: “Back to school is a particularly stressful time for families with limited resources. Gaps in basic needs like school supplies, clothing, and footwear can negatively impact a child’s emotional and intellectual development—which can be compounded by toxic stress due to housing instability. Families experiencing homelessness particularly benefit from access to individually tailored services that directly address their unique needs. As a provider of customized packages of everyday essentials for children living in low-income and homeless situations, Cradles to Crayons sees Boston Public Schools’ new database for school-community partnerships as a critical asset to positioning more families for success by providing access to targeted resources.”
Boston city council has recognized this growing need and has set up a new Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery.
Its goal, according to committee chair, Councillor Annissa Essaibi George, is to better understand what is already being done and to examine the impacts of homelessness on children, young adults and families. Essaibi George aims to “help homeless families come out of the shadows. We’ll work on a campaign to give families language that can preserve their dignity while looking for solutions,” she continued.
Finally, the Committee hopes to find better ways to serve this population, especially homeless children.
The Committee has met several times and has listened to social and community advocates discuss what they need to address the growing problem of homelessness in Boston. Its mandate is to work to enhance the quality and quantity of available programming financed by the city, state and federal resources.
Homeless advocate and volunteer Joan Bennett is pleased with the efforts of the city but is waiting to see what the results are.
“I don’t have statistics,” she said, “but it’s obvious that with increasing rents in Boston and surrounding communities, it has become more difficult for families to make ends meet. Evictions are at an all time high, forcing women and children to either couch surf, live with friends or families in overcrowded conditions or go to family shelters. Often times, the men can’t go with them.”
Bennett continued: “Substance use disorder is just another reason for homelessness. Massachusetts has seen a surge in opioid addiction. Often times, addiction and mental health disorders can run hand in hand. There is a severe lack of services for both, and the treatment facilities are bursting at the seams. Waiting lists are long. My family has experienced both. Without private insurance, it is often impossible. Committees are formed, but if the Commonwealth does not throw money into more staff and facilities, the problem of homelessness for whatever reason will not go away and will only continue to get worse. Putting a band aid on a gaping wound is never the answer.”
Some readers may remember learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in school. At the bottom of the self-actualization pyramid are the basics for survival: food and shelter. Until this basic foundation is in place, we can’t expect anyone to move up the pyramid to social and emotional well-being.
It is incumbent upon cities to offer support to its most vulnerable citizens, so they can build on that foundation and become contributing members of society.
Teacher, mother and councillor, Essaibi George stated the following in her inaugural speech: “The city of Boston has a moral responsibility to support the stability and well-being of all children and families as they struggle through homelessness.”