By Deirdre Fernandes
A year and a half into his coursework at MassBay Community College in Framingham, Gabriel was ready to call it quits last November.
He was constantly worried about how much longer he could stay at a local homeless shelter. He was late to classes because the public bus between the shelter and campus rarely arrived on time. And his grades were slipping.
“It was hard to focus,” said Gabriel, 20, who didn’t want his last name used. “Even the small things would add up. It was getting to be too much.”
This past week, Gabriel was one of 20 college students who moved into residence halls on four public university campuses, in a push by Massachusetts officials to reduce youth homelessness.
State higher education officials hope that by providing vulnerable community college and university students a secure place to live, guaranteed meals at the campus dining halls, and more support, such as mental health counseling, they will boost academic success and, ultimately, ensure that these students graduate.
Massachusetts initially plans to spend $120,000 to pilot the student housing program at Bridgewater State, Framingham State, and Worcester State universities and at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, with more funding expected in the next budget.
Governor Charlie Baker announced the program on Thursday as part of a rollout of $3 million in grants to community organizations across the state that help homeless youth.
“We saw a need,” said Carlos E. Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. “And we’ve got space in our state universities.”
The extent of the need for beds among Massachusetts public college students is unclear. But Santiago points to one sure sign of demand: Just a few days into this semester and the program’s launch, all the 20 beds have been taken.
Massachusetts officials estimate that there are between 500 to 1,000 unaccompanied homeless youth.
An online survey done in 2017 at a majority of the state’s public campuses conducted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 13 percent of Massachusetts community college students reported experiencing homeless in the previous year. Many said that they did not know where they were going to sleep, even for one night, or had been thrown out of their homes.
At the state’s public four-year colleges and universities, 10 percent reported being homeless in the past year, according to the survey.
Homelessness was particularly acute for students who were coming out of the foster care system.
Some of the students in the state’s pilot program said they have been couch-surfing, living with their families in shelters, or staying at hotels occasionally. Some of the students were kicked out of their homes in high school and have been on their own for years. Others come from families who are transient, and they may not have a place to return to when residence halls close for breaks.
The state is guaranteeing the students a yearlong place to live as long as they are enrolled in school full time, are under the age of 25, and remain in good academic standing.
It’s a relief to have the certainty of affordable housing, said Jaime Waldron, 20, a sophomore at UMass Lowell who is part of the pilot program.
Both of Waldron’s parents died by the time she was 15, and she bounced among family members during high school. She is considered an independent orphan and has previously taken out $16,000 in student loans to pay for her year-round, on-campus housing.
She already worries about saving money for after she graduates, because she doesn’t have family to rely on financially and will immediately start paying her own rent.
“Living here literally feels like a home,” Waldron said. “Now I don’t have to worry about not having housing next summer. . . . At least I’m only $16,000 in debt, it could have been way worse.”
Massachusetts is among a handful of states testing new approaches to help homeless college students, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founder of HOPE lab, an academic center that studies homelessness and hunger issues. Goldrick-Rab is currently a professor at Temple University.
Some colleges are considering opening up their parking lots with a security guard at night for students who may be living out of their cars, she said.
In Washington, Tacoma Community College is working with the local housing authority to provide federal rental assistance vouchers to students, many of whom have been displaced by the high cost of housing in the area. A private developer in that city has also renovated some apartments near the campus and opened them up to homeless or near-homeless Tacoma students.
Whether the Massachusetts program can be expanded to the state’s other public university campuses remains an open question, Goldrick-Rab said.
For now, the program is not available to students over 25 or those who have families. Many students attending community college are older, working adults who are also trying to support families.
The Massachusetts model may also be difficult to replicate in other states. Massachusetts has a shrinking college-age population, and declining enrollments at some of the campuses may help free up beds for homeless students, particularly those attending community college, Goldrick-Rab said.
But simply giving students a place to live may not solve the problem, Goldrick-Rab said.
Students who are homeless usually have a cascade of troubles, including mental health issues and family responsibilities, that can push them out of a stable home, and the state’s program needs to address those issues adequately, she said.
“Housing is such a big deal, but it might not be quite as transformative as they wish,” Goldrick-Rab said. Still, she said the program “is one of the more innovative things.”
It has given Gabriel some reason for optimism. He is still trying to find his way around the residence hall at the Framingham State University campus, but considering some of the places Gabriel has lived, he sees clear improvements.
The door on his dorm room closes, giving him some quiet time to study. There is Internet access for schoolwork. And a shuttle travels regularly between Framingham State and MassBay, getting him to classes on schedule.
“I’m just able to focus on school,” he said.