Schools hit by expense of transporting homeless

A van drops off a student (with backpack, left) at a hotel at the end of a school day late last month. A van drops off a student (with backpack, left) at a hotel at the end of a school day late last month. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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The white van with a yellow school bus sign on top stopped at the front door of a hotel on Route 1.

A young girl with a heavy backpack stepped off, waving to her mother, who came to meet the bus. Two other children exited the bus and pushed the glass door to enter the lobby.

Program finds permanent housing, Page 6

Hotels are a regular stop on public school bus routes north of Boston, where hundreds of homeless families are temporarily living because the state’s 2,000 family shelter units are full.

As of Monday, there were 1,437 families living in motels and hotels across Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

More than 300 families are living at hotels in Burlington, Chelmsford, Danvers, Haverhill, Malden, Saugus, Tewksbury, and Woburn, according to state data.

But since August, when a new program started to place homeless families in permanent housing, the number of families living in hotels has dropped by about 20 percent, or by 341 families, including 30 that moved from Danvers hotels.

“It’s a promising trend that we anticipate will continue,’’ said Robert Pulster, associate director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Still, the gains are not enough to offset thousands of dollars in new transportation costs faced by local communities.

Federal law gives homeless families the option for children to attend school in their home district or the district where their shelter is located. A shelter can be a motel, group housing, a campground, or another form of temporary housing.

The law also requires public school districts to provide transportation to school. If a family chooses to send children to school in their home district, the cost must be shared by that district and the district where the shelter is located.

“Whether a kid is flopping on a mattress in a shelter or living in a motel, public schools have to make sure they have a stable place for learning,’’ said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “It’s an important part of the safety net [for homeless families].’’

But there is no fiscal safety net for public school districts, which are not reimbursed for transportation costs for the homeless. That leaves some educators feeling pinched between state and federal housing policies.

“It’s another unfunded mandate,’’ said Kara Kosmes, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the Haverhill public schools. “The state doesn’t give you any money and we have to follow the federal law.’’

“It’s complex,’’ said Lisa Dana, Danvers school superintendent. “Our job is to educate all our students. Absolutely, we see these [motel] kids as our students. . . . But the state [policy] does have a very real impact on our costs.’’

Duffield said her association believes one solution could be for the federal government to allow schools to use other federal money available to homeless students, such as Title I education funds, to cover transportation costs.

“We need a bigger pie,’’ Duffield said. “The housing crisis is at the worst level ever. People are losing homes and jobs. . . . The funding needs to catch up to the times we’re in.’’

Danvers, where town officials in August criticized the state for using motels to house homeless families, spent $72,000 to transport homeless children in the last school year, down from $158,000 the previous school year, the data show.

The drop is largely due to federal stimulus money that was used to help people at risk of homelessness catch up on rent or avoid foreclosure. Saugus’s spending dropped to $46,798 in the last school year, from $66,868 in 2009-2010, figures show.

But stimulus funding has run out. And with the economy stalled, homelessness is rising.

State data released Tuesday shows Danvers has 80 children ages 5 to 18 living in motels in town. Some attend Danvers schools, with a school bus picking them up at the motels.

Students attending school in their home districts usually are transported by vans. The cost for operating each van can be as much as $11,000 per year, according to School Department data.

“It’s a cost that is hard to predict because the number of homeless students we have, and their transportation needs, can change daily,’’ Dana said.

Malden spent $496,880 in the 2000-2011 school year on transportation for the homeless, the most of any school district in the region. There were 161 students who were living in motels in the city or who were from Malden and lived in a shelter elsewhere, according to data from the state Department of Education.

In September, there were 75 homeless families living in Malden motels. Counting students who live in shelters, transportation costs this year could rise to $600,000, Superintendent David DeRuosi said.

“Wherever kids end up homeless, in Malden or if they’re from Malden, we’re responsible for the cost,’’ said DeRuosi, who is in his first year as superintendent. “It’s a big impact for us. . . . Our population, due to the tough economic straits, will only see these numbers go up.’’

Woburn spent $90,883 on homeless transportation last year, nearly a third more than in the previous school year, when the bill was $59,627, according to its School Department.

Haverhill - which has transported children as far as Worcester - spent $61,310 in the last school year, nearly double the $31,295 spent in 2009-2010.

The high costs have added pressure to school districts at a time when many have cut jobs and services and raised student fees to balance their budgets.

Danvers increased sports, fine arts, and bus fees 20 percent this school year.

“We look at our budget collectively,’’ said Keith Taverna, the district’s interim business manager. “Fees are one part of them.’’

Saugus increased athletic user fees $100 to $350 per student, per sport. The district also cut a custodian’s job at the high school and reduced spending on materials and supplies.

“If there is anything a homeless kid deserves, it’s to be able to stay in their schools,’’ said Samuel Rippin, the Saugus business manager. “But a dollar is a dollar. If we didn’t have to pay this expense, we could spend the money somewhere else.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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