Homelessness a crisis in schools

December 22, 2013

The Boston Herald

Boston Public Schools are facing significant challenges - many of which, including turnaround schools, busing costs, and deteriorating buildings, are well known. Yet increasingly, school leaders are counting higher percentages of homeless children among their student body. It's an issue that's largely been kept quiet, but one that puts our city's children and education system at significant risk. To continue to ignore the problem simply because there's not an easy solution is unacceptable.

In fact, homelessness is on the rise in Massachusetts - particularly among public school children. As of October, Massachusetts' Emergency Assistance reported approximately 4,100 families with children and pregnant women living in shelter programs, and in 2012, Massachusetts public schools reported serving 15,085 homeless students. While many teachers desperately want to help, the current methods available to them only begin to scratch the surface.

It is not enough to refer homeless children to the school counselor or social worker, if the school is fortunate enough to have this resource. Whole schools - principals, teachers and support staff - must understand the unique circumstances and needs of homeless children and families and adopt practices to meet these needs to ensure the success of children in school. Some initial steps for building toward this level of awareness and action might include the following:

Public knowledge: A key first step is greater insight into the prevalence and experiences of homeless families. The recent New York Times profile of homeless children in New York City provides a striking, in-depth window into the challenges facing homeless children, both within their families and in their interaction with schools and the welfare system.

Learn from the best models: Over the past decade, many schools have worked successfully with homeless families. In fact, schools like Haven Academy in New York are specifically designed to address the needs of high-risk students, including the homeless or those in foster care. We should study and share how they remove barriers to learning, respectfully engage families, provide extended hours/wrap-around care, arrange transportation, etc.

Think and work across service areas: At both the local and state levels, services for homeless families should strive for greater coordination, full-service, one-stop or "two-generation" efforts. Imagine state agencies combining resources to make a school the access point for homeless children and their families to simultaneously connect to all of the services they need and are eligible for.

For example, the school - through a counselor - links the family to housing assistance, childcare vouchers, transportation, health insurance, mental health counseling, food and fuel assistance, job training, etc. And then the same counselor continuously meets with these children and families to ensure follow-through, from families and service providers alike.

Homelessness in our schools is not going away. Recently I heard from a Boston principal who was scrambling to arrange transportation for homeless students. A new report released by the Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies sounds the alarm that rising rents in the U.S are straining an ever-increasing number of families, with now 50 percent of renters spending 30 percent of their income on rent; 27 percent are spending half of their income on rent. As a result, the center predicts a large increase in the number of homeless families. We must begin to address the issue in a serious way now, or we will have failed our teachers, our students and their families.

Jake Murray is the director of the Aspire Institute at Wheelock College. "As You Were Saying" is a regular Herald feature. We invite readers to submit guest columns of no more than 600 words. Email to oped@bostonherald.com. Columns are subject to editing and become Herald property.

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