Keeping a tab on student homelessness

It’s the kind of effort few newspapers have the time, space, or resources to make an investment in pursuing, but it’s an important issue that needs to be put before readers and policymakers.

It’s a multi-story, multimedia look at the heartrending problem of educating homeless students — some 4,000 in Boston alone, nearly 1 in 14 — and the battle they wage in trying to keep up with classmates who go to a real home and warm bed every night. It’s a deep dive into the causes behind the growing problem as well as the financial impact on the tight schools’ budgets.

But the most jarring part of the package is not solely the content, it’s where the stories ran: not, as one would expect, in the Boston Globe but rather the Boston Herald, the shrinking tabloid increasingly being written off as a paper in search of an identity. The homeless story is the type of effort the Herald of 20 to 30 years ago would regularly undertake to show Boston was truly a two-newspaper town, ceding no ground to its better-funded, more-muscled competition.

And given the Herald’s unambiguous lurch to the right in the news hole, it’s a risk to run counter to its readership in offering a serious and quality look at an issue that disproportionately impacts minorities that should trigger debate about responsibility and funding in City Hall and on Beacon Hill.

Written and reported solely by the paper’s education reporter, Kathleen McKiernan, the anchor to the package focuses on two teens whose Dominican family was forced out of Boston because of high rent. The family’s odyssey led them to a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Lynn followed by a two-night stay in the emergency room of Boston Children’s Hospital (where staff gave the kids “fake” physicals and a bed to allow them one night’s sleep) to a motel in Brighton and finally a shelter in Dorchester.

The family’s nomadic journey is an avatar of the struggles many homeless families face. But the issue gets fuller treatment in some of the accompanying stories. The spiraling housing costs in Boston are the main reason families become homeless, a spike that advocates say even affects middle class families who are being priced out of the market. But while many of those families can afford to move to the suburbs, albeit reluctantly, there’s no such alternative for many of the poorer families.

McKiernan offers some sobering statistics not just for Boston but statewide. In the last school year, state data showed there were 21,226 homeless students, an increase of nearly 9 percent over the year before. Included in that figure was the mind-numbing reality that anywhere from 600 to nearly 1,000 youngsters, according to two different surveys, are living on the streets without parents or guardians, nearly 100 in Boston alone.

The stories also include a look at programs around the city that reach out to help homeless students with shelter, extra schoolwork assistance, and mentors to try to keep them in school.

All of it, of course, comes with a cost. Not only is it a hardship on students to get to and stay in school, wherever they may sleep, but many cities and towns struggle with the burden to transport children to and from schools because of a mandate by the federal government to ensure education for homeless students. In Boston, city officials spent $3.8 million on transportation costs last year.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh makes the case the city is a magnet for homeless families because of the number of centralized services available in the Hub. He says Boston can’t carry the load alone, and the state needs to do more.

“Boston becomes the area that people end up coming to,” Walsh told the Herald. “A lot of families don’t originate here. They come to our city because we have services. Every time a bus pulls into South Station there is a potential for more homeless people.”

It is a vexing problem, it is a troubling story, and it is an important issue as classes are ready to resume. Kudos to the Herald for putting a spotlight on it.



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