Councilor explores housing, small business issues in Rox.
Meets with homeless students, Madison Park staff
When Boston City Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George steps in front of the children at the Homeless Education Resource Network summer camp at the Haynes Early Education Center on Blue Hill Avenue, the questions begin flying. Essaibi-George, who taught at East Boston High School, fired off answers almost as quickly as they came.
“Was it hard teaching high school kids?” one camper asked.
“I think it would be harder teaching second or third grade,” the councilor responded.
“What’s it like being a city councilor?” another student asked.
“Being in the city council is a lot like being in high school. Lots of personalities. Lots of drama.”
The visit was part of a tour of Roxbury Essaibi-George undertook recently to become better acquainted with the neighborhood. Although the Dorchester native hasn’t spent much of her career working in Roxbury, she became familiar with the issue of homeless students during her 12 years at East Boston High.
“I still remember having one student who had a downtown address,” she recalls. “I asked the student where he lived. He said at Bridge Over Troubled Waters. It was a real eye opener for me.”
School department officials estimate that seven percent of BPS students experience homelessness, but Eassaibi George says there is not enough of a coordinated approach to meeting the unique challenges they face. She is advocating one simple policy change she says would make a world of difference: notifying teachers when students in their class become homeless.
“I want teachers to have that information,” she said. “Right now they’re not being notified formally. Teachers can provide students with a lot of extra support.”
Essaibi-George has not yet made a formal request to change BPS procedures to notify teachers, but says she plans to do so after meeting with councilors. One change the school department has made is providing a dedicated liaison in the Transportation Department who makes sure students who become homeless or are otherwise displaced during the school year receive prompt bus route reassignments. Changing a bus route can take as long as seven days.
“That leads to a significant loss of classroom time,” she said.
Essaibi-George won an at-large seat on the council in the 2015 election, displacing long term incumbent Stephen Murphy. A lifelong Dorchester resident, she is owner of Stitch House. The daughter of a Tunisian-born father and Polish mother, she meets biweekly with other elected officials of color representing Boston. When that group wrote a letter three weeks ago calling on the state legislature and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh to enact criminal justice reforms, including body-worn cameras for police officers and a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct, Essaibi-George did not sign on.
“The timing of that particular letter was the day after police officers in Texas were killed,” she said, adding that Boston has not suffered through police shootings of unarmed civilians like those that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement over the last two years.
“I think there are certainly national incidents we need to be prepared for if they happen here, but we need to talk about what’s happening here.”
Essaibi-George also opposes Ballot Question 2, which would lift the state’s cap on charter school expansion, and voted in support of a council resolution opposing the measure last week. She says the state formula, which takes funding from district schools to fund charters, doesn’t include enough reimbursements for the districts.
“I think the growth of charter schools really does hurt the Boston Public Schools,” she said. “We spend millions of dollars on charter schools and really get reimbursed only a small portion.”
Small business concerns
During the tour through Roxbury, Essaibi-George began with a coffee hour with constituents at the Haley House Bakery and Café, a visit to the Phillips Brooks House Summer Urban Program at the Hennigan Elementary School on Heath Street, a lunch meeting with staff from the Madison Park Development Corporation in Dudley Square, a tour of the Roxbury Innovation Center, a visit to Horizons for Homeless Children on Columbus Avenue and a visit to the YMCA on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
As a small business owner, Essaibi-George says she would like to see all neighborhood retail districts thrive as much as the Dorchester Avenue area where her sewing and knitting supply shop is located, or Dudley Square, where new businesses are proliferating. And she wants the city to ensure that neighborhood-based entrepreneurs are able to participate.
“We need to approach commercial affordability in the same way we approach affordable housing,” she said.
Essaibi-George says that she will work in the fall to develop a proposal for requiring real estate developers to set aside a portion of affordable commercial space for local businesses. It’s a demand she says she’s heard on her tours of Roxbury, East Boston and other neighborhoods.
“One of the loudest messages I’ve heard was the desire to have affordable retail space,” she said.