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State reports rise in students experiencing homelessness

A national report found that more than 1.5 million public school students experienced homelessness in the 2017-18 school year, the highest in more than a dozen years. In Massachusetts, the number has risen to more than 23,000.
A national report found that more than 1.5 million public school students experienced homelessness in the 2017-18 school year, the highest in more than a dozen years. In Massachusetts, the number has risen to more than 23,000.Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

The number of homeless students enrolled in Massachusetts has increased, according to a new report by the National Center for Homeless Education.

The student homeless population in the state’s public school districts rose by more than 3,000 between 2016 and 2018 to more than 23,000.

The report defines homeless as students who lack a fixed and adequate home, including those living in shared housing, motels or trailers, and cars, public spaces, or abandoned buildings.

“We’re counting the real universe,” said Kate Barrand, CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children, a nonprofit group. “We see about 3,000 children in Massachusetts right now, on any given night, in shelters. That’s all that fits in the emergency assistance rooms. That doesn’t mean that’s all of the homeless.”

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Sarah Slautterback, state coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program, said the increase stems in part from more accurate and consistent reporting but also reflects the scarcity and high cost of housing in Massachusetts.

“It’s a clear indicator that there’s not enough housing around,” she said. “Our families on low income and fixed income are not able to keep up.”

Barrand also cited the area’s high cost of living as a leading factor behind the increase.

“We see gentrification of neighborhoods that used to be more affordable and suddenly we see million-dollar condos going in,” she said, citing developments in traditionally lower-income neighborhoods such as Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.

Slautterback said the increase also coincides with a surge of Puerto Rican students enrolling in Massachusetts schools after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Most of the students were counted as homeless, she said.

The National Center for Homeless Education collects data on the demographics and academic performance of homeless students through state submissions to the US Department of Education.

Nationally, more than 1.5 million students were reported as experiencing homelessness at some point during the 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018 school years. In those years, the number of students experiencing homelessness increased by 15 percent.

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In Massachusetts, Boston, Worcester, and Springfield have the most homeless students enrolled in their public schools.

Slautterback said some school districts help families who are struggling to find stable housing, but the search can be difficult.

“There are limitations to how far [these efforts] are going to go,” Slautterback said. “Housing is just plain scarce in some of these places. We’re here, we’re working with families, but we can’t find any housing to move them into.”

In Boston, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George plans to present a legislative package to support the 5,000 students in the city’s public schools who experience homelessness.


Stefania Lugli can be reached at stefania.lugli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steflugli.