FSU joins pilot program to combat youth homelessness

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to the media following the press conference. (Corey McFeeley / THE GATEPOST)

As of January, Framingham State is part of a new program called the Massachusetts Student Housing Security Pilot, aimed at providing homeless youth with shelter and resources.

Gov. Charlie Baker, accompanied by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, visited campus on Thursday, Jan. 31 for a press conference to announce the launch of the Baker-Polito administration’s new program.

Baker emphasized the importance of the narratives of homeless youth in his talk to the audience. He noted there are some 500 to 1000 homeless youth in the Commonwealth, and most likely more, since not every homeless youth will officially disclose their status.

“The simplest way I can describe what we heard from them [homeless youth] is to say that when you talk about food insecurity and homelessness – they’re generic terms. When they speak their own particular life stories, they’re not generic,” Baker said. 

He added, “When they talk about being homeless at the age of 15, and literally trying on their own to build a path forward and a life for themselves, it’s not generic anymore – it’s incredibly personal and hugely powerful.”

Baker and Polito convened the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness in October 2015, co-chaired by Sudders and former secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash. 

Sudders said the council and the administration itself have increased their focus on homeless youth following studies from the HOPE Lab that found almost half of all Massachusetts community college students face some degree of food and housing insecurity.

State colleges and universities across the country participated in a study conducted by the HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin, which explored student homelessness and hunger. 

Sudders, a first-generation college student like many of the homeless students present, talked about the struggles of relying on university housing – especially when the dorms closed for the holidays and summer. She said, “Homeless youth and young adults should have the same opportunities provided to them as others to help them succeed.”

According to the University website, FSU is one of eight public institutions in the Commonwealth involved in the pilot program – four universities and four community colleges.

The four-year institutions – FSU, Worcester State University, Bridgewater State University, and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell – each partnered with its local community college. The program supports a maximum of five students per partnership, according to a Feb. 1 MassBay press release.

Support includes housing, meal plans, and other student services from their respective college or university.

FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said there are currently five students participating in the program between FSU and MassBay – three FSU students and two MassBay students. 

The University website states potential program applicants must be enrolled full-time in a participating institution, be a degree-seeking candidate in good academic standing, and be age 25 or younger. Applicants can be referred by campus staff or community service providers, or apply themselves.

Cevallos said, “I think it’s something that’s a great idea. We actually started last year, before this pilot. We had a MassBay student who was homeless and we offered that particular student housing.”

He added, “It was good we were able to find housing for this student, and I’m glad we are able to provide this opportunity, but it is so sad that there are still five students who are homeless. I hope that we are able to continue to help young people who find themselves in situations like these.

“Listening to the stories of these students today – it’s heartbreaking,” Cevallos said. “All of a sudden, a parent might have died, and they are thrown into this crazy world.”

FSU’s Residence Life department works to provide housing assignments for the students participating in the program. Glenn Cochran, director of residence life and associate dean of students, said his department is “really working hard on the logistics and making the pieces fall into place.”

He added, “This has been an ongoing effort since the beginning of last summer. I was asked to go to the first meeting about it … and it’s been a great project to be a part of.”

Michelle Yestrepsky, coordinator of student support initiatives, serves as the University’s “single point of contact” for FSU students who face housing or food insecurity. She said her team is “working to coordinate the housing pilot program and to provide support to the student participants.

“My hope is that this program will help students to thrive as they work to pursue their educational, career, and personal goals.”

The mass.gov press release also states the proposed plan includes $3 million in grant funding for 10 community organizations throughout Massachusetts. The grantee for the MetroWest area is the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council, which has received $272,340.

“Funds can be used for housing, transportation, education, and case management support,” the press release states. There is also a winter response for youth without housing during severe weather, as well as support initiatives for undocumented and unaccompanied youth.

Yolanda Ortiz, director of the Tempo Young Adult Resource Center in Framingham, spoke about her own experiences as a homeless youth and how community organizations helped her and other youth with similar experiences to move forward in life and pursue their educational and career goals.

Ortiz said with state funding, her organization has helped over 50 young adults with rental assistance, connections to primary care, mental health support, and vocational training. 

MassBay student Gabriel, who declined to disclose his last name for privacy reasons, is an FSU dorm resident. He said the program has made a “drastic change” in his life.

“Your mindset really changes when you don’t have to worry about food or transportation,” he said. “I’m able to focus on school now.”

Gabriel is studying information systems and technology at MassBay and plans to continue his education at FSU. 

Cevallos said he is “grateful” to the Baker-Polito administration for the support and resources it has helped to provide. 

He said, “We are always looking for ways we can do more to support this population.”

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