Thousands of Boston students face homelessness as school approaches

As Boston Public Schools (BPS) students gear up for the excitement and pressures of another school year, over seven percent of the district’s youths are facing the additional stresses of homelessness.

The approximately 4,000 homeless students in the public school system represent almost one fifth of the state’s homeless students—a staggering figure that has climbed over the past six years to reach about 21,000 this fall.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a Boston family of two adults and two children would need to spend more than $17,000 a year just on housing. But well over 13 percent of Boston households made less than this figure in 2014, according to U.S. Census data.

One of the primary groups of children experiencing homelessness includes students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, Homeless Education State Coordinator Sarah Slautterback said.

Living without the safety and stability that housing provides has a striking impact on children even at a young age. Horizons for Homeless Children, a non-profit organization that focuses on meeting the needs of homeless children from infancy until they turn six, sees significant developmental delays in many of the children they serve. According to BPS, homeless students are twice as likely to have a learning disability.

“Healthy child development really requires stable, structured and supportive environments,” Horizons for Homeless Children CEO Kate Barrand said. “When a family is homeless, the chronic sources of stress that they experience actually have the ability to alter the child’s brain and neurological development.”

At this young age, Barrand explains that children need things that transience can’t provide. Through early education and preschool programs, play spaces inside 120 shelters, support for parents and policy work, the organization serves over 2,000 children weekly.

After children spend six months with Horizons for Homeless Children, the organization sees the developmental delays begin to diminish. While Barrand explained that children at a variety of ages are resilient, she noted, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

The second main group of homeless students is high school teens, many of whom have left their families.

Homeless students in the state’s public schools are over four times more likely to be part of a gang and nine times more likely to have used heroin compared to housed students, according to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. They are more than twice as likely to have had sexual contact against their will. Only 46 percent feel that their teachers care about them, and only a quarter eat breakfast.

These risk factors, combined with potential emotional trauma or mental health issues and the educational disruption that many homeless students face due to switching schools, can lead to a homeless student falling behind.

“Any school dealing with homeless children has to look at them differently, has to focus on trauma-informed care,” Barrand said.

At BPS, one of the main barriers to helping homeless students is simply not knowing that they are homeless. Some students may feel uncomfortable disclosing that information, and so there are almost certainly more than the approximated 4,000 homeless students in the district, according to BPS Press Secretary Daniel O’Brien.

“The key to all of this is identification,” Slautterback said. “We talk a lot about how do you let folks know that it’s OK to be homeless, you still get to go to school, we’re still here to support you.”

BPS is usually notified that a student is homeless by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), homeless shelters, community and health centers or sometimes local hotels.

Once a student is identified as homeless, the district’s homeless liaison steps in. Every district in Massachusetts has a homeless liaison that reports to Slautterback and focuses on identifying students, helping them enroll and supplying them with lunches, tutoring and academic support and access to extracurricular activities. Twenty-seven districts, including BPS, receive a grant from the state for supplemental support.

BPS’s Homeless Education Resource Network (HERN) works to supply students with essentials such as school supplies, clothing and access to food pantries. Each school in the district has a homeless liaison who works to coordinate the services available to homeless students and help with referrals.

According to HERN, children lose several months of education each time they switch schools. To help reduce the frequency of this move, BPS supplies transportation to homeless students who start living in another part of the city and will pay for transportation for those who move out of the city.

To reduce the achievement gap between homeless and housed students, the state works on training faculty and staff to meet the unique needs of homeless students. BPS also has a volunteering mentoring program, Mpact, that reports boosting homeless students’ academic performance.

While there are many roadblocks to homeless students’ success, the state is seeing improvement. Currently, 75 percent of unaccompanied homeless students graduate within five years, which is significantly higher than the nationwide average, according to Slautterback.

“We’re doing well but certainly not well enough. We would want to see them up with everyone else,” Slautterback said.

Reena Karasin is a freelance reporter for Spare Change News.

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