Imagine leaving school at the end of the day with no home to return to. That’s the reality for more than 3,700 students in Boston Public Schools and more than 24,000 students statewide, whose lack of housing robs them of their full potential to learn, grow, and thrive in their education. Because the data is self-reported, the counts are probably higher.
The challenges that come with a lack of stable housing — students are more likely to be absent or late and have no place to do homework, let alone sleep — lead to fatigue, anxiety, burnout, and behavioral issues. Teachers and families do their best to address these issues, but the impact of student homelessness translates to less energy, time, and support for everyone in the school community.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A promising solution has emerged, demonstrating that student homelessness in Boston can be reduced by expanding a pilot program that has already proven to be effective.
Five years ago, Boston’s Higher Ground, Project Hope, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and New Lease for Homeless Families joined the Boston Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office of Housing, the Boston Housing Authority, the city of Boston’s education cabinet, and then-City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George to launch a program with the goal of reducing student homelessness in seven schools in Roxbury and Dorchester. During the first three and a half years of the program, which has become known as the Family-Led Stability Initiative, our collective efforts reduced student homelessness in those seven schools by 75 percent. As of February, the initiative has housed the families of 450 students attending 12 schools and is on track to house the families of another 500 students in the next three years.
We achieved this reduction thanks to the cooperative efforts of everyone involved. School homelessness liaisons referred families to BPS and the initiative; the Boston Housing Authority provided public housing units and rent subsidy vouchers; and for-profit and nonprofit affordable housing developers that are members of the statewide New Lease for Homeless Families provided some of their vacancy turnover units to FLSI and similar programs. Property owners welcomed formerly homeless families with the confidence that Project Hope, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and Higher Ground were there to support, engage, and build trust with families for 12 to 18 months after they have been housed, ensuring their access to needed services and helping them to achieve housing stability. School Superintendent Mary Skipper executed an agreement with Higher Ground confirming the district’s support of the initiative through June 2024.
This collaborative model should grow beyond the 12 schools. Beyond Boston, data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that while Boston saw a 9 percent reduction in student homelessness in the past two years, the statewide number increased by 9 percent. Nineteen of 26 Gateway Cities saw their numbers rise, some as much as 50 percent or 70 percent. Student homelessness tends to be concentrated in communities of color and families with modest incomes, making it a critical equity issue that Massachusetts can address.
The Family-Led Stability Initiative has made a great deal of progress since January 2018, and the road map we’ve developed — if implemented in other communities — could help reduce and eventually eliminate student homelessness across the state. Interest from municipalities across Massachusetts is growing, providing fertile soil for this effort. Expanding policies that put the issue of student homelessness at the forefront is the first necessary step to resolving it.
The 3,700 Boston students and 24,000 students across Massachusetts without a place to call home all need our creativity and collaboration. We’ve seen what works. We know the problem: We have a solution. Let’s expand this successful model across the Commonwealth to give our children the stable housing they deserve.
Charlie Titus is chair of the Higher Ground board of directors and Brandy Brooks is the organization’s deputy director.