One student slept at Logan Airport. Another found refuge at night in an academic building, showering early each day at her campus fitness facility. Others slept in their cars, rotated among friends’ couches, sheltered in tents or under bridges.
At a time when college costs have shifted dramatically from state governments to individuals, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that some college students living on a financial precipice are in fact becoming homeless. In a 2018 survey of Massachusetts public college and university students, the first conducted on behalf of a state system of higher education, 13% of community college students and 10% of state university/UMass students reported becoming homeless in the Commonwealth during the previous year.
How to address students’ basic needs security as a matter of state-level public policy? With campuses running numerous interventions to alleviate food insecurity, the Department of Higher Education (DHE) chose to focus on housing.
Forging a partnership with the Massachusetts Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth and eight campuses, DHE used a Health & Human Services grant for $120,000 to secure beds for students at four universities: Bridgewater State, Framingham State, Worcester State and the University at Massachusetts Lowell. Each university is partnering with a nearby community college - Bridgewater with Massasoit, Framingham with MassBay, Worcester with Quinsigamond, and UMass Lowell with Middlesex - to provide up to five beds for homeless students in each region. Soon after the pilot’s launch in January 2019 and with little publicity, most of the beds had been filled.
“Perhaps the only downside to declining enrollment in the Northeast is that we have a few more open beds that we are able to repurpose for students who have nowhere to live,” said Carlos E. Santiago, Commissioner of Higher Education. “This pilot aligns perfectly with our success and completion goals, because we’re increasing the odds that these students will graduate and get into the workforce with degrees that will enable them to get well-paying jobs.”
The pilot features multiple layers of collaboration - between state agencies, DHE and campuses, and between campus partners and community service agencies in five regions of the state. While the state grant covers housing costs, campuses are providing meal plans for students throughout the year, including break periods and the summer months. Each community college and state university team is paired with a local youth services provider that offers additional help to students, ranging from counseling and financial literacy to needed dorm room supplies such as bedding.
“The support from Community Teamwork Incorporated (CTI) in Lowell has been fantastic with regard to life skills and career planning,” said Jonathan Crockett, coordinator of wellness programs at Middlesex Community College. “CTI has been responsive and really eager to help make it a positive relationship with both the colleges and the students.”
Students participating in the pilot express gratitude not only for a bed, but for the chance to concentrate on their schoolwork without the anxiety of wondering where they will spend the night.
"My pillow was a bunch of dead grass, and every now and then I'd wake up to a little eight-legged friend on my face," one Middlesex Community College student told WBUR-FM in an interview, recalling how he lived for a time under a tarp near a gas station after being kicked out of his home. Today, as one of the students in the housing pilot, he lives on campus at UMass Lowell and is fully focused on his dream of becoming a special needs therapist.
Funding for the pilot will continue through the next fiscal year, with federal dollars being sought to expand the pilot to off-campus housing sites, in order to serve homeless student who are older or who have families.