Crystal Costa found out she was homeless when the phone rang. At the time, she was at her boyfriend’s house because she needed help watching her two kids. Her son, Kaiden, was struggling to follow his first-grade teacher through a laptop screen, and Alice, her daughter, was home sick again. Crystal had been laid off by Walmart for leaving shifts to get Alice from day care.
On the phone, “it was the principal reaching out to me and asking, ‘are you guys OK?’ I didn’t even know what happened yet.”
“Then she said ‘There’s a fire right now at your address.’” Crystal pulled her son from the computer, scooped up her daughter, and ran. In that moment the fire, though blazing away, wasn’t yet real to her. She needed to get there, “to see what was going on… if we had lost anything.”
Before she understood what had happened, Crystal’s children became the newest additions to the over 1,200 homeless students in New Bedford Public Schools at the time, or not far off from one in every 10 kids in the district. Today, that number is closer to 900 students.
They lost everything. Clothes. Toys. Photographs. Her grandmother’s porcelain dolls. The last VHS tape she had of her late father. And though her son was allowed to finish the school year, he would eventually have to change schools when they moved out of the neighborhood.
These disruptions to the routines, support, and friends in her son’s life caused behavioral changes. And everything – from his emotional and academic support to Crystal’s need to find new housing – fell to a growing team of professionals within the New Bedford schools, a team that is tasked with providing aid to those overlooked in the housing crisis.
The definition of “homeless” is different for schools counting students than for municipal governments counting residents. Crystal and her family, for example, never spent one night on the streets or in a shelter after the fire. They would not be counted as homeless by the city of New Bedford in its yearly street census.
Most of the homeless students in New Bedford, about 80% of them, are “doubled up.” When primary caregivers don’t have permanent housing, they often will stay on the couch at a relative’s place. Maybe they’ll spend a few weeks with a friend until their welcome wears out. Sometimes family members will agree to look after the kids, but the parents must sleep in the car or find a shelter.
As the population of New Bedford has grown faster than the housing stock (and as rental prices have increased even faster), the squeeze of available housing has not pushed more people to live on the streets. Nor has the number of shelter beds shot up.
But the school department, by counting the students who are doubling up, has captured how New Bedford families are adapting. In the last four years alone, there’s been a 30% increase in doubled up families.
“Certainly every school in New Bedford has a student that is homeless,” said Sarah Slautterback, the state coordinator of McKinney-Vento, the federal grant that supports homeless students.
With just over 900 homeless students, not only do all 25 schools support these children, but likely every teacher and student knows someone among the one in 14 that will not return to stable housing each night.
Crystal and her kids were now part of this rapidly increasing population. They went to live with her boyfriend and his whole family in an apartment not designed for that many people, entirely dependent on their goodwill in a difficult time.
Out her new window, Crystal could see a local shelter. She would even come to know a few of the people staying there – they had kids in her son’s class. But she, like many, didn’t know how common homelessness was in New Bedford. “I can’t say it’s good to hear that you’re not alone in this, because it’s not a good situation and you don’t wish it on anyone,” she said. “But knowing you’re not alone makes it feel more normal [rather] than blaming yourself.”
The morning after the fire burned her home, Crystal met someone from the school district who came by to drop off clothes, school supplies, and a few other essentials. “It was miraculous how quickly they reached out and how quick they got everything in place.”
But it wasn’t a miracle. That response had developed with plenty of practice.
School staff reach out to offer support
Inside the school’s central office building, Julie Mador could smell smoke. She has many jobs: registrar, foster care point of contact, director of family engagement. For one of her jobs, liaison of the homeless program, smoke triggers a reaction.
She calls Brian Nobrega, who directs emergency management in New Bedford, to find out if the fire department has been dispatched nearby.
This has happened more than once, and if there’s a fire engine barreling toward an address, she checks it against all the district’s registration information. When she finds a match, she’ll sometimes send people from the school department to the scene in case another family loses their home.
Nobrega said that the schools get the information quickly. “Nine out of 10 times, the principals — and a couple come to mind — already know that their student’s house caught on fire.”
“They’re notified of every fire,” he said, but “the schools will find out on their own sometimes.” Some school department officials said they use an app that tracks police and fire scanners. Their response to support a family often begins before Nobrega calls, and — again — they must open a closet full of clothes, hygiene kits, and backpacks.
Four years ago, when Mador began overseeing registration and family engagement, her department had five people. Simply collecting information from families across New Bedford was emotional. “We thought, ‘how can I send you to school tomorrow knowing the stories?’”
Some students were migrants fleeing war-torn countries and often came here unaccompanied. Others didn’t have a stable housing situation. For these and other reasons, many hadn’t attended school regularly for years.
The district began reaching out to these families and connecting them with community partners who could provide services, such as PACE and the Community Health Center. But they were quickly overwhelmed: Mador estimated that 5,000 families came to her department every year seeking some kind of support.
So today the registration department has grown to about 17 people. The family engagement office got so big that it spun off into its own department, now employing nearly 20 people.
Along the way, simply adding staff could reveal the depth of a problem. For example, last year the district identified 63 migrant students — of those, 33 were considered homeless. The year before there had only been five migrant students identified, and Mador said that adding a migrant specialist to her staff was probably the biggest reason for the remarkable increase.
Last December, Margaret Silva joined as the district’s housing specialist. She supports 500 families through some of the darkest days they’ve ever known. “I’ve never met a family who was happy to see me,” she said. “It’s not a welcome experience.”
To these hundreds of families, she’s known as Maggie. Together they sit down and fill out applications for Section 8 housing vouchers, or for state aid on rental assistance, or for fuel assistance, or for new apartment listings, or for MassHealth insurance, or sometimes for SNAP benefits (though there’s another specialist just for food issues). And Maggie meets the families on their schedule, whether that’s on a lunch break they have at work, late at night after they get off, or in the eight “family engagement centers” now set up at different schools around the district.
Maggie has up to 20 appointments every week, and after talking with The Light one morning she had to run off to three appointments in a row. Between meeting with families, she tracks updates on their applications or looks for new benefits they may qualify for. She often texts with her families, answering questions about the documents they need for the next meeting or just to check in.
Doing this job right means no secrets. Struggling single parents have to tell Maggie about the bills they can’t pay. Immigrants who held respected jobs in their own countries need to come clean about the low-wage job they lost. “There’s a large level of shame that comes with asking for help, and a lot of [families] never needed assistance before,” she said.
“At this point very few things surprise me. And even if you feel like your situation is very singular or isolated, it’s probably not,” she said. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed or isolated because of it.”
At the end of the day, though, Maggie can only do so much — she doesn’t have any apartments to offer, she said. Her guidance brings families to other providers, a wide network of agencies at the city, state, and even federal level, that can offer aid.
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Thanks in part to her work, the school department is now a key player in connecting agencies together. At a monthly meeting called HSPN, or the Homeless Service Provider’s Network, city officials, first responders, nonprofits, and religious aid organizations all come to the same table. One recent meeting took place above the art museum in the city’s annex offices.
In addition, there are now bi-weekly meetings to coordinate victims services after a house fire. This gathering has taken place ever since a Thanksgiving fire displaced 27 people on Washburn Street in 2020. The school department attends when a student’s family is affected, and Maggie goes to almost every meeting.
New Bedford has cultivated such a wide network of resources that Julie Mador was tapped to become Southeastern Massachusetts’ regional liaison for the program supporting homeless students, known as McKinney-Vento. In this role, she oversees and offers advice to all districts from North Attleborough to Martha’s Vineyard on how to run their homeless support programs.
These meetings, collaborations, and partnerships have greatly improved the available support, but on the front lines Maggie still sees the personal impact of broad issues.
“The housing crisis is very real. I think there’s kind of this esoteric idea of what the housing crisis looks like, and all of us in the school department see it every day. We see it every day with students who don’t have a reliable place to stay at night.”
Homeless students face multiple challenges
The students who live through these ordeals often have additional emotional, behavioral, and sometimes academic struggles.
“Stress also takes a toll on a child,” said Melinda Medeiros, a single mother of four who said she was evicted over personal issues with her landlord. For almost a year she couldn’t find new housing, and it was the most stressful year of her life.
Her son was in kindergarten at the time, and Melinda started getting more frequent and more serious calls about his behavior issues.
Though teachers were very supportive, Melinda said, she can’t help but laugh at the memory of one exasperated call from a worn-thin educator: “I was told they had never seen a child like my son in 25 years of teaching.”
She also noticed the effects on her son’s health. He had been diagnosed with asthma, and his breathing seemed worse while intermittent attacks became more frequent and serious.
Sarah Slautterback, the state coordinator, said children can feel the effects of heightened stress, even if parents aren’t aware of it. Even children not directly affected by homelessness might be worrying about a friend who hasn’t been to school recently.
“People often don’t understand how close this is to each of the children, each of the staff members in the building,” Slautterback said. “It impacts everybody.”
The district has resources to provide tutoring and transportation for homeless and doubled-up students. Many kids receive SRTA bus passes because they end up lodging outside of an available school bus route. Others receive one-on-one tutoring after school, either to find a safe place to complete their homework or to get help catching up on what they missed because of absences.
The needs of every student and family are highly individual, and school officials say those needs can change over time. That makes it hard to characterize what normal assistance looks like because everything from college applications to chemistry homework to mental health support to finding a prom dress could be someone’s biggest need.
About 40% of the homeless students are in grades one through five, estimated Mador. The most undercounted area, she estimated, was pre-school students, simply because the district does not have as many students at that age.
For Melinda and her children, finding stable housing helped everything return to normal. Since weathering their crisis, her son has started to hit all his reading milestones and behavior issues are nearly gone. His asthma has settled down, too.
Both Melinda and Crystal say their kids are doing great now.
Across the state, New Bedford is typical in its number of homeless students. Bigger cities, like Springfield, Worcester, and Boston, have more affected students. Smaller cities like Pittsfield, have fewer. The biggest difference is the nature of the homelessness: in Western Mass., there are more tent encampments, but in New Bedford a higher percentage of people are doubling up.
Not much is known about the long-term effects on these students. Among all homeless students, attendance is worse and in-school behavior can become an issue. But long-term academic performance and graduation rates aren’t tracked because homeless and doubled-up students frequently switch schools or go missing from data records. Slautterback said she’s currently studying this type of data.
It’s important to note, Slautterback said, that not everyone who is doubled up counts as homeless. Many families choose to live multi-generationally. Even when multiple families live together due to economic hardship, they probably aren’t considered homeless. It’s when one family is not included on a lease, and so has no legal protection to housing, that their doubled-up situation could be considered homeless.
Moving forward, the biggest risk for homeless students is undercounting them, school and state officials agree. There can be no intervention without knowing who’s affected. In New Bedford, by the time Maggie meets with most families, they are “past the first six steps where remediation could have helped,” she said.
Anything that could “catch them further upstream” would mitigate some of the worst crises, and there’s a lot that the schools are trying, like putting fliers in every classroom to help teachers identify warning flags. There is now training for teachers at the beginning of the year on identifying students. And eight “family engagement centers” accept walk-ins who have questions about housing support.
Historically, schools have only been able to help from inside their buildings. But an expanding parent’s academy is trying to get community members to work on their behalf, too.
The Family Institute for Student Services, or FISS, is a six-week-long night class that parents can take to learn about the district, designed for immigrant families who don’t know how the American system works. For the first time this year, FISS was offered to the whole district.
Jason Figueroa, who graduated from the first ever FISS cohort, now teaches one of the classes. When a reporter asked him if FISS parents learned about housing services — and whether they could help their friends and neighbors connect to help — he pointed down the hallway where a group of graduates and their families were talking with a cheery housing specialist, Maggie.
“That’s what this is all about,” he said.
For Crystal, she never expected the school department to be the hub she relied on for housing support. She said she was grateful for the people, like Maggie, who helped her, but added, “It’s a road that I hope that not many people have to travel.”
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org