The number of students living without a parent or guardian who experienced homelessness in Massachusetts has surged since the pandemic, according to state data.

Nearly 1,800 students were unaccompanied and homeless at some point during the school year that ended last June, according to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the highest in recent years. That’s up from 1,700 students the year before, and a roughly 25% increase over pre-pandemic numbers: there were 1,408 homeless and unaccompanied students in the 2018-19 academic year.

Unaccompanied homeless youth are particularly vulnerable for a myriad of reasons, advocates say, including their distinct developmental and social needs, as well as difficulty accessing needed resources that might be hard to navigate alone at such a young age. They are considered homeless if they are without an "adequate nighttime residence,” including sleeping in motels or shelters.

State officials and homeless advocates say the rise is fueled by a combination of the state’s housing crisis and migrant influx, aggravated by systemic barriers for low-income children of color and LGBTQ+ youth. Most unaccompanied students are 16 or older — but even with the rise, advocates and officials say it’s almost certainly an undercount.

“People just need to know that it’s this big of a problem,” said Tracey Scherrer Friedman, executive director of the Haven Project, a Lynn nonprofit that supports homeless youth.

What homeless youth need

Among them is B.P., who asked GBH News to use her initials to protect her privacy. She said that she was homeless when she was 18 after leaving school and suffering domestic violence, sleeping on couches for a year until she found an apartment with the help of the Haven Project.

“A lot of us don't have a lot of people in our life to help,” said B.P., who is now 19. “We’re basically just kids — like, we’re young adults, we’re trying it for the first time.”

Now, with the nonprofit’s support, B.P. says she feels more confident in herself and has made friends. She says the Haven Project also helped her access resources she needed, like getting on food stamps.

Nowhere has reported higher numbers of unaccompanied youth in recent years than the North Shore city of Lynn, a low-income community with a majority of Hispanic and Black residents.

Scherrer Friedman says that numbers have continued to increase — jumping to 723 last academic year, about 40% of the identified homeless unaccompanied youth across the state.

“They’re the ones serving you coffee. They’re the ones sitting next to you on a train. They’re hidden in plain sight.”
Elisabeth Jackson, president of Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The most recent Youth Count report, conducted in 2022 by the Massachusetts Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth, found that unaccompanied youth and young adults under the age of 25 continue to face barriers in accessing needs like shelter, nutritional assistance, and mental health support. The report found that young people often didn’t know where to go for help, a persistent barrier across different services.

Unaccompanied young people are also more likely to be unsheltered than they were in 2019, with now one in six sleeping in a place not meant for it, such as a car, outdoors or in a train station, instead of, for instance, sleeping in a shelter or at a friend’s house.

Elisabeth Jackson, president of the nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a homeless youth shelter in Boston, says the state data reflects what her staff sees every day: young people struggling to survive on their own.

The organization serves about 2,000 youth and young adults ages 14-24 every year. Last year, Jackson saw a roughly 40% increase in intakes.

“They’re the ones serving you coffee. They’re the ones sitting next to you on a train. They’re hidden in plain sight,” Jackson told GBH News. “This is the time they need the most support, and we don't talk enough about that.”

What’s causing a ‘hidden’ problem

Homeless youth are often difficult to identify, advocates say. Some might feel shame or stigma to self-identify as homeless. Others under the age of 18 may not come forward out of fear of being taken into custody by the Department of Children and Families.

School districts are tasked with identifying unhoused students under a federal law passed in 1987 that aims to help homeless students succeed at school.

Jacqueline Reis, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the increase is due partly to the high cost and limited availability of housing, as well as the end of pandemic-era programs to prevent eviction. The number of unaccompanied youth dipped between 2019 and 2021. Reis said this may be because many students were learning remotely, posing a challenge to the counting process.

Kelly Turley, the associate director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, says the state’s shelter crisis also could be affecting young people who may have to separate from their families. The state reached a cap of 7,500 families in its shelters last fall, and wait lists are hundreds of families long.

Turley also noted a disproportionate number of Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness.

Jackson says there are other factors, like educational barriers and the struggle to find well-paying jobs, that contribute to youth homelessness.

Scherrer Friedman, who used to serve as the homeless liaison for Lynn Public Schools, told GBH News that currently most of the unhoused young people in Lynn are migrants who arrived through the help of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“It’s not a new phenomenon at all. It’s something that’s been steadily increasing,” she said about the number of unaccompanied migrants.

In Lynn, Scherrer Friedman says numbers are high because the district has made it a priority to identify homeless youth as soon as they enroll in the school.

“If you’re sitting with a youth and there are red flags, you might not notice them if you’re not looking for it — or you don’t know what to look for,” Scherrer Friedman said.

Many districts acknowledge their numbers are likely an undercount. In the Boston Public Schools, 44 young people were identified as “unaccompanied” and “homeless” last academic year, a decrease from 71 the year before, according to school officials.

“You might not notice them if you’re not looking for it — or you don’t know what to look for.”
Tracey Scherrer Friedman, executive director of the Haven Project

Brian Marques, who works with homeless youth in Boston Public Schools, says unaccompanied students can be difficult to identify because “young people are more likely to be hiding in the shadows.” He says the school district has a homeless liaison at each of its 125 schools, each trained to provide homeless youth with services.

Through a partnership with the Boston Housing Authority, the district provided housing for over 1,600 families in the district since the program launched in March 2020. Although this reduces the number of homeless youth and their families overall, this doesn't accommodate unaccompanied homeless youth specifically.

“We were starting to see our overall numbers of students experiencing homelessness starting to come down over a couple-of-year period with some of those robust housing programs,” Marques said. “But now it’s on the rise again.”

What comes next

Horizons for Homeless Children's library
Horizons for Homeless Children's library, where students can read and play.
Maeve Lawler GBH News

A new Youth Count report will be released later this year. Laurie Ross, director of the Department of Sustainability and Social Justice at Clark University in Worcester, says that because of an influx of migrants in the state, officials hope the new report will offer a sense of how many homeless youth are migrants and how they became homeless.

There are 110 young adult-specific shelter beds throughout Massachusetts, according to the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Providers with funding from Homeless Youth Services can also use some of that money for hotels and motels as emergency housing for young adults, the office said.

“Our homeless youth services staff, but other shelter staff as well, are constantly fielding more requests for shelter,” said Alice Colegrove, the director of Homeless Youth Services for the state. “And the beds are limited.”

This increase in unaccompanied homeless youth is part of a bigger picture of instability. Children under the age of five are also experiencing homelessness across the state at increased rates, says Kate Barrand, the president and CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children, a Roxbury-based nonprofit providing early education and support to homeless children and their families.

Today, there are nearly 5,000 children under the age of five accompanied by their families in the state’s emergency assistance system, more than double the number in 2020, Barrand says.

"We consistently underestimate the magnitude of the issue when it comes to homelessness," Barrand said.

Corrected: March 22, 2024
A previous version of this article misidentified Bridge Over Troubled Waters as the only homeless youth shelter in Boston.