Schools Programs Keep Hunger and Homelessness From Derailing Local Students

Bunker Hill Community College student Michael Curran knows what it’s like to be homeless and struggling in school.

Curran, 28, of Medford, is among the many students who rely on the college’s Single Stop program for food and other resources to get by in life and in school.

When asked how often he comes to get food from the social and financial resource center on campus, he replied “three times a week.”

“That’s how often I’m on campus,” Curran said.

As a second-year psychology student, Curran is no stranger to the Single Stop USA initiative, which operates at seven community colleges across the country.

What prompted Curran to first visit the Single Stop site on the college’s Charlestown campus was the fact that he saw several of his classmates walking around with food in their hands.

“When I saw more and more people walking around with food, it looked really good, and I asked, ‘where’d you get it?’” Curran said. “And then as I got to know more about Single Stop, I got a lot of help on different things and found out more about the resources they had.”

Bunker Hill Community College is also seeing a rise in the number of students that need access to food and housing, among other things.

Kathleen O’Neill, director of Single Stop at Bunker Hill Community College, said marketing has also gotten better for the program.

“It took a while for students to know about us, and we’re constantly getting students in,” O’Neill said. “We’ve just been increasing the service as we see the need for students to seek out the resources.”

Curran says he is doing well and feels more self sufficient now that he knows how to better manage his finances while only working part-time as a barista at a bakery. But that wasn’t the case when he initially made the decision to work less hours.

“I had difficulty managing working and going to school when I worked full-time,” Curran said. “As I began to focus more on school instead of work, it became more difficult to pay my bills … there’s a lot of frustration involved in different elements of being self sufficient.”

Many students find themselves feeling the way Curran did, and the issue of housing and food insecurity, particularly among community college campuses, is starting to be investigated and studied by several colleges and organizations across the country.

The most recent “Hunger on Campus” study, published by four campus-based organizations, found that out of 3,800 students from 34 colleges across the country, 22 percent struggled with food insecurity while 13 percent reported being homeless in 2016.

The number of homeless students applying for financial aid for college has also risen from 47,200 students in 2009 to 58,000 students today, according to recent FAFSA data.

According to a 2016 “Student Hunger & Homelessness” survey conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, 24 out of 29 public post-secondary institutions in the Commonwealth provide some type of food pantry or partner with food assistance programs in the Greater Boston Area.

Yet the growing number of students struggling with food insecurity or housing has risen over recent years.

“I would say a lot of campuses are just beginning to get a pantry or food program on campus,” said Ann Ciaraldi, chair of the Post-secondary Homeless Students Network, which helps run the Navigators’ Food Pantry at UMass Lowell.

Ciaraldi said the success of her program over the past four years could be the result of more hungry students than in years past and could also be credited to better marketing to students.

The Navigators’ Food Pantry went from once serving 10 to 15 students a semester to now serving close to 200 a semester.

“I think as we market ourselves now and they find us out, the more it just continues to grow,” she said.

Curran said Single Stop has been a resource beyond just providing him with food to eat but also teaching him how to navigate many other complexities.

“The way bureaucracy is, it can be really difficult to fill in the gaps, and a lot of areas are covered here at Single Stop,” Curran said. “All of this stuff I wouldn’t know about unless I came to get food.”

Both Ciaraldi and O’Neill cite major successes when it comes to feeding hungry students, but they both said more needs to be done to help those who are homeless or are experiencing housing insecurity.

“I just don’t feel like we’re dealing with it enough. It’s a huge problem in Boston since rent is so expensive, so we’re really trying to work with the hunger issue because we have the resources here,” O’Neill said.

When asked whether he struggled with housing insecurity or stayed at a shelter while attending Bunker Hill Community College, Curran replied, “Well, I have in the past.”

“I’m not homeless currently, but I’m familiar with the system and used to be in a shelter and community living and things like that,” he said.

O’Neill, director of Single Stop, told Spare Change News that it can be difficult to get students housing.

“If they’re homeless, we try to get them into a shelter, but that can be very difficult because the shelters are full,” O’Neill said. “And we also have someone that comes to help students that are possibly getting evicted … so we’re trying to connect students to services. Without help they won’t graduate from school.”

Ciaraldi echoed that sentiment.

“It’s the homelessness that is really difficult,” she said.

Both Ciaraldi and O’Neill are working to combat the issue in different ways.

O’Neill will be running a Voices of Hunger Conference on campus at Bunker Hill Community College this May, and Ciaraldi is looking to form Student Resource Security and Success Strategic Infusion Team at UMass Lowell.

Both are hoping their proposals and programming will bring forth solutions to help those most in need and said other colleges and universities are noticing the issues at hand.

“A whole bunch of stuff is being done now because everyone is concerned about it,” O’Neill said. “So little by little we’re dealing with that but there is so much work that is being done.”

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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