Mass. Offers Free Dorms To Homeless College Students

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A pilot program in Massachusetts aimed at assisting homeless college students is now providing free housing for up to 20 students in the state.

The program partners community colleges with nearby state universities.

One beneficiary of the program is Sumail. He says his parents kicked him out when he was 15. For awhile, he says, he lived at a gas station under a tarp with a Styrofoam door.

"My pillow was a bunch of dead grass, and every ... now and then I'd wake up to a little eight-legged friend on my face," he says.

He showered at the school gym.

"You have to deal with it," he says. "When you get tired, exhausted, you have to push through and get through life."

He says no one in high school ever found out he was homeless because he had a bubbly personality.

"You're happy," he says. "You portray yourself as being happy, but deep down inside, you know you're depressed. You're alone at the end of the day."

We are only identifying Sumail by his first name because he is concerned about the stigma of being homeless.

When he turned 18, he got a job at a grocery store and a place to live. Then he lost that place. At Middlesex Community College, he found out about the state pilot program to house homeless college students. He's 23 now, in his first year. He wants to become a special-needs therapist.

Another student in the program, Jamie Waldron, had lost both parents when she was 14. She says she finished high school living with a cousin in Haverhill. At UMass Lowell, she paid for housing, but then came summer.

"And that's when I really considered myself homeless, because I really didn't know where to live," she says.

That's when she found out about the pilot program. It will allow her to live in a dorm year-round. She's 20 now and wants to become a lawyer.

Ten percent of state university students and 13 percent of community college students report they experienced homelessness in the past year. But state officials believe that number could be higher — many students are embarrassed about being homeless.

Students who live on campus do better academically than students who live off campus. And even at a 98 percent occupancy rate, there are still enough available dorm rooms at state universities and UMass to house homeless students.

Four community colleges that don't have dorms are being paired with those campuses.

Zac Bears, executive director of PHENOM, which advocates for more funding of public higher education in Massachusetts, welcomes the pilot program. He says the homelessness points to a bigger problem at public colleges and universities: the decades-long decline in state support for college tuition.

"[It's] forcing students into choices of whether or not they can afford their rent or their tuition," he says.

In the short term, this new program takes away that worry from students such as Gabriel. He's 20. He became homeless when he was in sixth grade. Along with his mother and sister, he moved from shelter to shelter. He's now a student at Massachusetts Bay Community College. The pilot program has found him a dorm room at Framingham State.

He says it beats trying to study in a homeless shelter with another family in the next room and no door between you.

"And I can just focus on school," he says. "It's really great. It's awesome."

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that students reported they were homeless, but the number referred to students who had experienced homelessness in the past year. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on February 01, 2019.

This segment aired on February 1, 2019.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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