Metro

State’s public colleges see rise in hunger, homelessness

Randi Marenburg (left) helped a student at a food pantry at UMass Boston.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2014
Randi Marenburg (left) helped a student at a food pantry at UMass Boston.

The state’s colleges and universities are reporting that hunger and homelessness among students have increased over the past year, an alarming new disclosure that makes clear that many low-income students have far more to worry about than just exams and extracurricular activities.

The findings, released Tuesday, come from a survey of administrators at the 29 state colleges and universities, 24 of which operate their own food pantries or have partnerships with community food banks.

Forty-five percent of the colleges reported a rise in student homelessness over the last year. Thirty-eight percent saw an increase in students living with “food insecurity,” roughly defined as a lack of consistent access to food. And 34 percent saw a rise in students being served by food pantries.

Advertisement

“Quite frankly, it’s heartbreaking to know the kind of challenges they’re facing, and they still come to school, and they still try to succeed,” said Patricia A. Gentile, president of North Shore Community College in Danvers, which has a higher percentage of students experiencing hunger than its peers nationally.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The results were included in a report presented to the state Board of Higher Education, which is weighing how to respond. The next step may be to survey students, not just administrators.

“The larger picture here is we should do everything we can within our power to support those students who are demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to their studies,” said Fernando M. Reimers, a board member and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They need a little helping hand.”

Most colleges reported they have students living in shelters, cars, or “couch surfing,” and some described students living in 24-hour businesses such as Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s, or outside in warmer weather.

All told, 1,020 students at Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities are homeless or at risk of homelessness, according to federal data. State colleges and universities serve more than 290,000 students.

Advertisement

The administrators blamed the problem of hunger and homelessness on lack of family support, student debt, the rising cost of living, and insufficient financial aid, among other reasons.

Last November, North Shore Community College surveyed its students about hunger and homelessness, after noticing that many were taking fewer courses per semester because of financial — not academic — pressures.

The results indicate that 32 percent of the 6,500 students at North Shore Community College are “hungry,” compared with 20 percent of community college students nationwide. Nineteen percent are homeless, compared with 13 percent of community college students nationally.

Bunker Hill Community College and the Greater Boston Food Bank have teamed up to give out food to those in need.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/File
Bunker Hill Community College and the Greater Boston Food Bank have teamed up to give out food to those in need.

“That was disturbing to know that our students face a disproportionate challenge to staying in school and completing their education due to hunger and homelessness,” Gentile said.

When the survey asked North Shore Community College students to describe where they live, the responses included: “shelter for 3 years with kids;” “in my car,” and, “I live with friends and family — whoever has room for me at the time.”

Advertisement

Gentile emphasized that average age of a student on her campus is 27, meaning many are mothers and fathers, and not the typical 19-year-old who might attend a private four-year college.

An estimated 1,020 students at Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

She said the college has sought to raise awareness of a campus fund that provides low-income students with $7 vouchers for the college cafeteria.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, meanwhile, administrators said the school may create supply closets with toiletries and other household items for needy students.

Salem State University said its students and alumni are holding a “Grilled Cheese for Giving” event to raise money for the campus food pantry.

Christopher Aguirre, a 20-year-old student at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, is among those who have confronted homelessness and hunger while working toward a degree. He told the Board of Higher Education his story Tuesday, bringing at least one member to tears.

According to a copy of his testimony, Aguirre was working full time as a bank teller and living in Revere when his rent increased and he could no longer afford the bills.

Determined to attend college, he applied to Bunker Hill and started sleeping between Terminals B and C at Logan Airport in July 2015.

In September of that year, just as he was preparing to start classes, he landed a job at a bookstore in the airport, he said, and was able to afford one meal per day.

He continued to sleep in the airport until December 2015, he said, until he managed to find housing through a shelter program.

At Bunker Hill, he said, he qualified for the dean’s list, and saved money through scholarships and federal financial aid grants. He said he expects to graduate this year, and is preparing to transfer to a four-year college. He hopes to become a molecular biologist.

He credited his success to his professor and advisers as well as to Single Stop USA, a program at Bunker Hill that connects students to a mobile food pantry, financial aid, legal assistance, and other essential services.

Aguirre urged the board to work urgently to help other students like him.

“While housing and food insecurity may be most visible on the sidewalk, it strikes far too many of this state’s young men and women who understand that their education can lead them to success,” he told the board. “That benefits not only them, but the Commonwealth as a whole.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.