Helping homeless families in the shadow of COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed Boston’s schools, City Connects Coordinators rushed to meet urgent needs, connecting families to food, health care, and online learning technology. 

Then they started addressing homelessness. 

“A large portion of our student body and their families are in homeless shelters or they’re in overcrowded situations, living with other family members,” Jacob Nyklicek, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s William E. Russell Elementary School says. 

So Nyklicek is providing these families with basics and, when he can, offering housing opportunities. 

On the housing front, Nyklicek connects families to a new program created by the Boston Housing Authority and the Boston Public Schools (BPS) that’s using vouchers to provide housing for 1,000 BPS families. He can also submit applications for families who can’t apply online themselves because they don’t have access to computers. 

“That’s one of the best phone calls you can make,” Nyklicek says, “calling someone who needs housing and saying, we have an opportunity for you, because housing is one of those issues that is so difficult to get help with.” 

According to city officials, 4,500 Boston students lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” as defined by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

On the basics front, Nyklicek is working to get Internet hotspots for families who live in shelters that don’t have WiFi services. He’s also referring families to food pantries and to Rosie’s Place for a range of services.

“We’re working with organizations that were already helping people and figuring out how we can do more.” 

*

 “This is a tremendously challenging time for our families,” Stephanie Sanchez, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s John Winthrop Elementary School, says. 

“We have around 250 students, and about 25 are homeless, and their lack of housing is just one piece of how they were already struggling before the pandemic because homelessness affects everything else. Now these families don’t even have the consistency of school.” 

So Sanchez works with HERN, BPS’ Homeless Education Resource Network, and with FamilyAid Boston, a local nonprofit organization that supports homeless parents and caregivers. 

But she’s also paying close attention to disruptive details. 

“What does it look like to socially isolate in a shelter? It’s very difficult. So maybe a family in a shelter moves into a relative’s home, doubling up, and they feel the guilt of potentially infecting that relative. 

“Many of us stay in our homes and grumble about being quarantined, but we have the privilege of not having to worry about other people going in and out of our homes multiple times a day.” 

Sanchez also notes that as family support systems for things like food and Chromebooks grow and adjust, the rules, understandably, change, which means keeping families up-to-date and translating – Sanchez speaks English and Spanish – when documents are only printed in English. 

To keep in touch, Sanchez calls parents and caregivers, but often prefers sending texts so people won’t be alarmed by seeing an unfamiliar number pop up on their phones. They can respond if and when they want to. And they can text back with more privacy than a phone conversation would allow. 

“It’s very scary for homeless families, especially since no one was prepared to do this work during a pandemic. But our families have been incredibly grateful and supportive. We check in with them, and they check in with us. They ask me how I’m doing, and if I’m okay.” 

“Life is hard for everyone right now, but we’re making it better together.”

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