Boston schools commit one million dollars to homeless students for 2018

The Department of Education estimates that there may be as many as 37,000 homeless students in the Massachusetts public school system.

New studies suggest that public school students in both Boston and New York City are at greater risk of homelessness during their school years. A Politico analysis of New York City found a 25 percent increase in the homeless student population between 2010 and 2014, a statistic that prompted Spare Change News to investigate the differences in student homelessness between New York City and Boston.

Since fiscal year 2008, Massachusetts has experienced one of the largest increases in family homelessness in the United States, with over 33,000 families having taken advantage of the state’s shelter system since fiscal 2008.

There are 1,854 public schools in Massachusetts spread across 404 districts. An estimated 960,000 students attend Massachusetts public schools each year, and the Massachusetts Department of Education reports that up to one-quarter of the high school students are homeless. Based on this statistic, the Department of Education was able to estimate that there may be as many as 37,000 homeless students in the Massachusetts public school system.

Department of Education statistics suggest that homeless students are more likely to be involved in illegal activity and harmful sexual behavior as a result of their homelessness. Homeless students are 12 percent more likely to join a gang than the average housed student and are 8 percent more likely to use heroin. Not surprisingly, homeless students also go hungry more often than their housed counterparts and are 16 percent less likely to eat breakfast before school every morning.

Boston’s public school system currently runs on an annual budget of $1 billion. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang recently committed $1 million of the 2018 school-year budget to directly assist homeless students. Schools that receive extra funding will be able to use it as they wish, as long as it benefits unhoused students. In addition to financial support, Chang’s initiative also aims to provide teacher and administrative training to better identify and help homeless students and their families.

“With students experiencing homelessness facing serious challenges outside of the classroom, this investment allows us to better support young people in reaching their academic successes,” Chang said during a City Hall press briefing in January.

Following Chang’s announcement of the initiative, Boston Public Schools’ Assistant Superintendent of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness Amalio Nieves said the city wants to “ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education.”

“If we can boost up the resources that we can provide, then we are providing safe healthy supportive environments for these students that will translate into greater attendance, which then ultimately leads to greater academic achievement,” Nieves said.

In addition to Chang’s budgetary reserve, Boston Public Schools created a new department in January entitled the Opportunity Youth Department, which is overseen by Nieves’ department. The Opportunity Youth Department will oversee the homeless students’ academic, social and emotional well-being, while overseeing the state’s Supervisors of Attendance unit and the Homeless Education Resource Network, which aims to “aid schools developing a program framework that will best suit their homeless students’ needs.”

“The Opportunity Youth Department will increase collaboration, resource sharing, and communication between the units that serve our most vulnerable students,” said Nieves. “When we see a student with attendance issues, it often reflects other crises in the child’s life, such as medical issues or housing instability.”

“I’m so grateful that Mayor Walsh is investing in the future of children, especially those experiencing homelessness,” said Boston City Councilor-At-Large Annissa Essaibi-George. “I’ll be a partner in directing these new resources to the classroom and the school community. School is a critical source of stability for children experiencing homelessness. This is a great step to improve their academic outcomes and their lives.”

Although the population of New York City is far larger than that of Boston, some statistics are similar. For example, 17.1 percent of Boston residents live below the poverty line compared to 17.5 percent in New York City. A report for The Boston Foundation released in February 2017 reports that on average, a New Yorker will stay roughly 14 months in an emergency shelter, while a Bostonian typically stays 12.  

Fair market rent in New York was estimated by The Boston Foundation to be an average $1,571 per month compared to $1,567 paid monthly in Boston. The Boston Foundation’s analysis suggested that the economic statuses of both New York City and Boston are stronger than the country’s as a whole, which attracts buyers and developers alike and makes the housing market more competitive. Unfortunately, this competition decreases vacancies, increases rents and makes it harder for low-income families to locate and stay in affordable housing. Transitioning families from a shelter to public housing or providing housing assistance might decrease the number of homeless students, but it currently remains unclear if this would ensure that families stay stably housed.

“Identifying and implementing the set of strategies that might be used to assist more families earlier in their shelter stays may be important, both for Boston and for Massachusetts as a whole,” recommends The Boston Foundation in their study’s conclusion.