IT’S TIME TO OPEN OUR EYES, pull our fingers from our ears, and talk about a crisis in our community — family homelessness. Many don’t realize or can’t fathom the magnitude and gravity of the situation because mothers with their children aren’t seen panhandling, standing on the street corner, or slouched on the curb. Yet, the annual US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 homeless report to Congress released in mid-December revealed that Massachusetts had the second-largest increase of homeless people in families with children from 2007 to 2018 of any state in the country with an increase of 94 percent. This statistic is staggering and especially unacceptable because there is a proven solution.
Boston Public Schools reports 3,500 of their students are experiencing homelessness. (The real number is expected to be closer to 5,000 because of the stigma associated with homelessness.) These are the city’s children, our children, and our families. They are in every Boston public school, sitting in the seats next to our children, riding the bus and finding room at the lunch table with our children. Most are part of a family unit, though a number of them — an actual number is nearly impossible to ascertain — are homeless and alone. Homelessness disrupts education. Children without stable housing and no place to study or do homework are known to drop out of middle school temporarily. Seventy-five percent drop out of high school permanently leading to a life of poverty and another generation of homeless.
Family homelessness is more than simply a housing problem, it’s a multifaceted issue. Providing access to critical services — housing, transportation, health care, mental health, education and job training — is essential. We have programs here in the Commonwealth right now doing this with proven success, where 92 percent of participants maintain permanent housing after going through the program. The problem lies in the fact that there aren’t enough resources to accommodate the number of homeless individuals in need, and those doing the work are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis. And that’s what has to change in order to address not only the moral imperative, but the economic one as well. Investing in these families makes their lives and the community better, and it eliminates reliance on city and state assistance.
Combining forces is the answer. Without a doubt, the public sector must lead the way, with a partnership between the city and state and certainly the federal government. But at the table we must also have families who experienced homelessness, along with the organizations that do this work every day acting as facilitators, so we know what’s required.
Opening our eyes to the reality of the housing affordability crisis, low wages, and poverty in this city is urgent. Couch surfing, nights sleeping in the emergency room, leaving children with relatives for a night while moms and dads go into adult shelter to avoid sleeping on the street is a way of life for many families.
We must make every effort to better understand the impact of family homelessness city and statewide. The impact on our economy and multiple systems is dire, and as family homelessness climbs so do costs for emergency shelter, health care, schools, and child welfare. Organizations doing the work are making the heavy lift but often in silos and without enough resources. We need a comprehensive plan and an effective policy response that simultaneously addresses systemic and individual family factors.
We know how to end family homelessness. It’s time we take the steps to do it. And, when we do, everyone wins.
Annissa Essaibi-George is a Boston city councilor at-large who chairs the council’s Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health, and Recovery. Deborah Hughes is president and CEO of Brookview House in Dorchester.