When I think about the start of the school day, I see the buses making their rounds and arriving at schools across St. Paul. It’s part of the normal rhythms of learning. But when I think about the rent stabilization ballot initiative we’ll be voting on this year in St. Paul, I think about the growing number of vans bringing students to school — because those vans provide transportation to students with unstable housing who are enrolled in Project Reach. Voting yes on rent stabilization is critical to ensuring our kids experiencing housing insecurity can have a quality education.
Project Reach is a St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) program designed to support students experiencing homelessness or who otherwise do not have stable housing — who might be sleeping on couches, at hotels, at shelters or living in encampments across the metro. At the end of last school year, SPPS had 969 students supported by the program. That is a heartbreaking number, and it’s already gone up almost 12% this year.
Access to housing is an issue of racial justice. Right now, less than 8% of the students in Project Reach are white — and over 47% are black. BIPOC students are the vast majority of students experiencing homelessness or who do not have stable housing. It is clear that unstable housing contributes to the racial disparities that our district faces. Our kids deserve so much more.
When families aren’t able to live in the communities where their kids go to school, they face barriers to fully participating in those communities. It’s hard to support families, and for students to thrive. Unstable housing is incredibly disruptive for students.
Can you imagine trying to learn without stable housing? Or trying to do homework at a shelter, where you only have access to a bed? How can we expect kids to discover the joy of learning when they have to deal with the uncertainty and fear of not knowing where their family is going to stay that night? It’s so hard for kids to be rested and ready for school when they might leave school not knowing where they are going to lay their heads. When kids know they have a stable roof over their heads, they do better.
Project Reach and the district work to provide access to wrap-around services and to coordinate with social workers and county services, but it can be incredibly difficult for families to find places that will rent to them and to navigate the process of receiving rental assistance. For people with uneven financial histories or poor credit or with low incomes, too often they are only able to rent from exploitive housing providers.
My family has had that experience. Up until very recently, my husband and I had rented an apartment near the site of the new soccer stadium. We lived there for over 13 years. After stadium construction began, a new owner bought the building, dubbed it “condominiums,” started raising rent by at least 15% a year, and converted leases to month to month. When we first moved in, the building was full of other BIPOC people. When we moved out, the building was mostly white. We were lucky to find stable housing after being pressured to move — but many members of our communities in similar situations have been left out in the cold.
We have to do better for our kids and our communities. If we want them to be able to learn, our students need to be able to stay in their homes. Municipal rent stabilization is an important part of the solution.
Zuki Ellis is a member of the St. Paul Board of Education.