The first day of school is a day of excitement and nerves for many children. Most children think about what they will wear, who they will walk to school with and which teachers they will have. The excitement of seeing their friends after the summer break combines with the nervousness of meeting new friends and catching up with old ones.
But for many children in Boston, the worry will not be about what they will wear. It will be about where they will sleep that night or how they will get to school if they’ve had to move around different shelters over the summer. Almost 4,000 families in Massachusetts are living in emergency shelters or motels and hotels.
For 15 families in the Charles River Motel, the worry is real. They are part of a group of families who are being relocated to other shelters as part of the Baker administration’s drive to eliminate hotels and motels from the state’s emergency shelter system.
Sheltering families in a motel is a last resort for the state. It’s a less than ideal situation. There are no cooking or laundry facilities, healthy food choices are difficult and community-based resources are lacking. The saddest sight, according to Maura Pensak, director of housing supports at the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, is seeing a young person doing their homework on the floor of a motel room.
So far, the administration’s drive has reduced the number of motels in the system from 48 to 14, a 71 percent decrease. But critics are worried about where the families are being diverted to.
Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George, the chairwoman of the council’s Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery, is concerned. She recently held a hearing on the transition of families sheltered in the Brighton Motels. “I called for this hearing because I have made homeless children and their education my priority. More than a third of the people in the state emergency shelter system come from the city of Boston. A motel room is not a suitable place for a family to live long term. With the first day of school around the corner… I want to hear that the BPS and the state are working together so that every child can have a great first day of school.”
Deputy Undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development Rose Evans initially testified that the September 1 deadline was internally set and that the 15 families would be relocated as of that date. Later, she clarified: “We are not going to ask a family to leave the Charles River Hotel on Sept 1. Right now, our strategy is to work with every family to assist them in resolving their homelessness. We are not going to ask a family to leave if we don’t have a strategy in place. It’s not a hard stop deadline. It’s just that we’ve identified this facility that we want to transition families out of.”
Essaibi-George questioned Evans a second time to confirm that the September 1 date was not a hard deadline. “I am very anxious about the Sept 1 deadline,” she said. ”That first day of school is so important for children. I want to know that those of you at the table today, that we make sure we are case-managing them. That they get to school on the first day. I know as a teacher and a parent that that first day can make or break their school year.”
There are many reasons why families become homeless, from being victims of a natural disaster to domestic violence to safety issues to eviction.
Councillor Tito Jackson expressed his concern about the fact that, in order to get into a shelter, families have to prove that they have slept somewhere uninhabitable, such as in a train station or hospital emergency room. He stressed that it is unacceptable to send young people who are not sick to emergency rooms to prove that they are homeless.
Evans said, “Shelter is not a solution to homelessness, shelter is a pathway to protection. You might not wind up in your ideal housing situation, but it’s a pathway to stability, economic and housing stability.”
The focus now is on prevention work, which can be successful and cost effective in many ways. Anna Leslie, coordinator at the Allston Brighton Health Collaborative, said, “We need to identify families before they are evicted and homeless, to support them with resources. Schools are an ideal place to do this. Homelessness affects attendance as well as academic performance. We’d love to see BPS use a screening method for housing issues so that we can provide support and training.”
Many presenters agreed that one year of support is not enough for people to get back on their feet. Jackson suggested, “Three to five years of funding is recommended to avoid falling back into homelessness… This will save money in the long term.”
The last speaker at the hearing was Ashley Jarrett, a mother of three children, who broke into tears as she talked about her life in the shelters. She described how her nine-year-old child had been to six different schools already. She talked about having to take all three of her children shopping or to doctor’s appointments because she couldn’t book daycare for the others as she never knew when she was going to be moved. She said she often only had one hour’s notice.
The stress and fatigue in Jarrett’s voice was palpable. She said that she lives out of a suitcase because she never really knows where she will be from one day to the next. Imagine her children heading to their first day of school. The challenges homeless students face are enormous, including the lack of a stable home in which to do homework and difficulties developing friendships and social networks.
Everyone at the hearing agreed with the logical solution of using preventative measures to deal with problems before they develop. In this regard, the state is implementing the HomeBASE program, which pays the household expenses of family members or friends so a homeless family can live with them. It can also cover a short-term monthly rental stipend, first month’s rent, last month’s rent, a security deposit, child care to help support employment or to go to school, household assıstance and household items such as furniture and beds. However, it may prove more difficult for the state to extend that funding from one year to three or five years.
The meeting closed on a positive note with a speech from Kimberly Romero, an intern for a Boston city councillor. Her voice cracked as she told her story. She had also been in the shelter system with her family and had been forced to advocate for many people in her building who were displaced. She urged the committee to improve accessibility to resources such as mental health services.
Romero navigated the system and was able to come out on top. Hopefully, Essaibi-George can ensure that others do the same.