Food Insecurity And Homelessness Increasing For Massachusetts Children

Seller at Boston's historic Haymarket // Illustration by Erin MacEachern

By Amanda Lucidi
BU News Service

Food insecurity and homelessness are growing problems in Massachusetts, especially for children according a recent report published by the Boston Foundation.  

Since the Recession of 2008, homelessness has decreased across the nation, but nearly doubled in Massachusetts. According to the Boston Foundation, on any given night 13,000 individuals experience homelessness.

Children are 60 percent of those individuals, with children under the age of five making up the largest homeless population.  

Although Massachusetts guarantees families “right to shelter,” cost of living is keeping families inside the Emergency Assistance shelter systems for longer than previous years according to the report.

“Fifty percent of people in Boston make less than $35,000,” Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson said. “Most of our affordable housing programs start at above $65,000. This lack of income contributes to a huge food disparity, which contributes to a difference of 33 years [in] life expectancy, in my district alone.”

Executive Director of Community Children’s Centers & Family Partnerships at Horizons for Homeless Children, Shelia O’Neil, said this is part of why their organization provides breakfast, lunch and a snack to those serviced at the center.  O’Neil said she knows some parents are getting to the shelter to pick up their children right as it closes.  

“Shelter life provides a number of challenges around food insecurity.  Number one is most people just don’t have transportation options, they have to rely on public transportation while having one or two children at their side at all times,” O’Neil said.

The Greater Boston Food Bank found that in eastern Massachusetts about 63 percent of food assistance agencies saw an increase compared to previous years, and one out of three of those serviced in eastern Massachusetts are children.  

Public Affairs Manager of The Greater Boston Food Bank, Catherine Drennan, agreed access was an issue for those in need.  Regular business hours may be difficult to utilize for family heads working two jobs she said.  

“I think that people in need are really stretched to the limits,” Drennan said.   “There are a lot more barriers put up for people in need and who are struggling every day.”

Three-thousand Boston Public School students face homelessness, and many food insecurity issues as a result.  Antiviolence activist Monica Cannon partnered with City Councilor Tito Jackson to create a program called Backpack 68.  The program aims to provide a backpack of food to students to last the 68 hours between dismissal on Friday and the first bell on Monday.  

“One of the things we plan to do is be based at the school so they don’t have to go anywhere, or sign up for anything,” Cannon said.  “The issue specifically in communities that are poverty stricken and communities of color is access.”

Cannon said that young people should not be expected to navigate the city to access these resources. And some will not walk into aid programs out of embarrassment because of the stigma around food instability, according to Cannon.  

“The goal is to bring it to them,” Cannon said. “A lot of these young people, just out of being ashamed, are not going to ask.  The best thing is to meet them where they are.”

The Daily Table, a non-profit affordable grocer in Dorchester, has tried to remove some obstacles by extending their hours and offering free membership regardless of SNAP benefit eligibility.  Executive chef at The Daily Table, Ismail Samad, said the community was asking for access to healthier affordable food.  He said affordability to healthy food leaves those in need of assistance buying for more calories instead of nutrition.  

Children who grow up experiencing food insecurity are more vulnerable to chronic health issues, stunted development and behavior problems said Emily Levine, director of policy and advocacy at Horizons for Homeless Children.

“These people aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, they’re living moment to moment,” Cannon said. “With that being the case we actually have to go into these communities and help these people.”

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