Connecting state and local government leaders
2018 NAVIGATOR AWARD WINNER: Annissa Essaibi-George, Boston City Councilor, City of Boston, Massachusetts.
This is the fifth in a series of 10 profiles on the individuals and teams who were named 2018 Route Fifty Navigator Award winners.
According to Boston Public School data, 3,600 of the students faced homelessness this past year. The school system acknowledges that number is likely an undercount due to the fact it relies on self-disclosure; the Boston Housing Authority data indicates that number may exceed 5,000.
“We have a specific image of what a person who is homeless might look like and it’s never a family, it’s never a child who might be in school with our kids,” Boston At-Large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George told Route Fifty. ““I think as adults we try not to hear about it, or talk about it or see it.”
As a teacher for 13 years in Boston Public Schools, Essaibi-George was all too aware that many students faced housing instability or homelessness. She says there is at least one child in every school experiencing homelessness, and even more from families she classifies as “housing insecure,” spending more than 50 percent of the household income on rent. When Essaibi-George ran for city council, finding ways to get students and their families who were experiencing homelessness into stabilized housing was part of her campaign promise.
Tackling homelessness is no simple feat for a multitude of reasons. In Boston, the fact that the state takes the lead when it comes to sheltering families further complicates the task of family housing stability. When the state places families in transitional housing, the priority is to keep children attending the same schools, but they may end up commuting hours each day to make that happen. That means even getting children to school becomes a challenge in itself.
“We realized that kids were missing, on average 7 to 10 days every time they moved shelters because it took that long to update the system and get the new transportation contract in place,” Essaibi-George said.
During her campaign, she pointed out Boston Public Schools spend between $4-5 million transporting homeless children to schools in Boston each year. She believes that funding could be better put to use creating transitional housing within their own communities for families, allowing children to reduce their commute and stress, and focus on a future of learning.
By keeping families close, city officials hope to connect parents with services and job training to help pave the path out of homelessness for the family. Essaibi-George says they can leverage existing relationships between nurses, social workers and teachers in schools with the family. By making the school the focal point of services, those relationships can amplify the work of other social service support.
Essaibi-George now serves as Chair of the City Council Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery Committee. From her work on the council, she has helped build a collaboration to tackle the challenge of homelessness from within the community, using schools as a focal point, with the Family Led Stability Program.
The coalition spearheading the effort includes Mayor Marty Walsh’s office through his Chief of Education and Chief of Housing, along with support from Boston Public Schools, the Boston Housing Authority, private developers and non-profit organizations that specialize in social and housing services for those experiencing homelessness.
The program is now in a three-year pilot stage starting with seven schools in the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods. During the 2017-2018 school year, outreach efforts identified 156 students from 111 families to participate in the program. By the end of September, the coalition had identified housing options for 55 of the 111 families identified and placed 32 students from 23 families, according to information provided by the Essaibi-George’s office. Their goal is to house all 111 families identified before the end of this school year and ultimately take the program citywide.
“Typically the mayor has his initiatives and the city councilors have their initiatives, but this is one where we’ve all come to the table at the same time,” Essaibi-George said. A great deal of the focus so far has been on perfecting the coordination between multiple government agencies, non-profits, schools and private enterprise supporters.
“We are only now slowly coming out of the shadows with our work,” she said. “We want to ensure we can fulfill the capacity that’s going to be demanded as we become more and more public.”
Mitch Herckis is Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.