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Hunger and homelessness are rising at more than a third of Massachusetts public colleges and universities, according to a report presented to the state higher education board Tuesday.
"I don't think there's any community college in this state that does not realize they are dealing with a low- and medium-income population that faces these challenges," said Pat Gentile, president of North Shore Community College.
On her campus, 33 percent of students said they sometimes go without food, and 20 percent said they do not have permanent homes. Statewide, the report to the board said, 1,020 students on public campuses are classified as "unaccompanied homeless youth" or at risk of homelessness, according to federal data.
The report draws on a questionnaire that the department of higher education distributed this fall, in an annual effort to address an issue that is gaining increased local and national attention. Administrators at community college, state university and UMass campuses answered questions about food pantries, support services and homelessness at their schools.
Of the 29 campuses surveyed, 24 reported that they have on-campus food pantries, mobile food marts or partnerships with pantries in their communities; just 19 offered such services in 2014. Administrators said they knew there were homeless students in class in 2016 at 15 community colleges, seven state universities and two UMass campuses.
Nearly half of those surveyed — 45 percent — said they'd seen an increase in the number of homeless students in the past year. Those students, Abel said in her presentation, sleep on friends' couches, in their cars, at shelters or in places that are open 24 hours, from Dunkin' Donuts to local airports.
Christopher Aguirre, 20, slept at Logan Airport for nearly six months in 2015, he told the board. He's due to graduate this year from Bunker Hill Community College after repeatedly making the dean's list, he said, and has received more support there than from programs designed to serve homeless youth.
"I have been denied from multiple transitional living programs due to my lack of income and my status as a full-time student," Aguirre said in prepared remarks. In contrast, his professors, advisers and other staff at Bunker Hill "have been a source of invaluable support," he said, "because they have transcended whatever negative or unjustified perceptions of homelessness in order to help."
Aguirre urged the board to "take action and find the urgency" to support students like him, "because while housing and food insecurity may be most visible on the sidewalk, it strikes far too many of this state's young men and women who understand that their education can lead them to success that benefits not only them, but the commonwealth as a whole."
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