How colleges are trying to address homelessness among students
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When Sara heard she was accepted to Florida Atlantic University in 2017, she was happy and excited, like so many high school seniors receiving acceptance letters. She wasn’t a bad student by any means, but wasn’t the valedictorian, either, so she was grateful for the opportunity. She planned to study criminal justice, and was thrilled about moving into the dorms. But unlike many of her fellow students, Sara wasn’t sure how any of her educational expenses—especially housing—would be covered, because she had to pay for it all herself.
Sara (who asked only her first name be used for this article to protect her privacy) was in foster care until she was 16, when she was placed with a family in Pembroke Pines, Florida. When she applied for college, her foster parents said that if she didn’t continue to live at home, they wouldn’t support her financially. Sara made the choice to go to FAU, which was an hour away, and since she didn’t want to commute, she decided to be fully independent and live on her own.
Sara, now 21, is part of a growing population of students at community colleges and four-year universities facing housing insecurity and homelessness, which puts them at great risk of failing to graduate. For students facing housing insecurity and homelessness today, the challenges go beyond being scrappy and surviving on the cheap, says Joe Murray, an assistant dean at FAU. Today’s students struggle with expenses and levels of precariousness that go far beyond what students in previous generations faced, and that’s especially true when it comes to housing.
“Just think about something as simple as move-in day,” he says. “All these parents come with U-Hauls full of stuff for their kid’s dorm rooms, and then you have a foster youth with a garbage bag of clothes, the only thing they may own.”
Much of the stereotypical college experience centers around living spaces, such as a student’s first dorm room or first rental apartment shared with friends. But colleges are Increasingly admitting more and more students like Sara who don’t have the resources to pay for housing. That’s led to more programs like FAU’s Educate Tomorrow, which has helped her and other students who are at high risk of being sidetracked from their education by housing issues.
Murray says that of the school’s 30,000-plus students, roughly 100 to 150 are foster children or were previously homeless, and 77 were enrolled in Educate Tomorrow last year. It’s indicative of how the homeless problem, which worsened during the recession, has only been exacerbated by a lack of housing supply, which is forcing rents up and pushing renters out of their homes.
FAU’s program helps students like Sara navigate everything from applying for loans to providing a $500 stipend to decorate their dorm rooms. Since launching in 2014, the program has helped raise the graduation rate of this segment of the student population to 46 percent, compared to the national average of roughly 4 percent. Murray says he won’t rest until that rate is 100 percent.
“They have no other safety net,” he says. “If they’re not graduating from college, they’re back on the streets and the narratives aren’t good. They don’t have parents to move back in with.”
Sara found the program particularly useful when figuring out her own housing situation.
“The biggest challenge was just figuring out how to navigate student life in general,” she says. “All the paperwork that comes with financial aid and applications, it can be scary if you don’t have someone to guide you.”
That guidance enabled Sara to become self-sufficient, something that proves difficult for many students in her scenario, who often face uncertainty and housing insecurity. Through Educate Tomorrow, she was able to navigate financial aid applications with a counselor and land a job at the student union. That gig, along with student aid and loans, helps her pay for her education and room and board.
“The guidance is there,” she says. “Fall semester freshman year, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and didn’t do my best in class, and that’s when I leaned on them the most for support.”
Homelessness in higher education
At universities and community colleges across the country—places whose mission is to provide opportunity and upward mobility—many students face the specter of poverty and not having a place to sleep. Roughly 60 percent of community college students, and 48 percent of four-year college students, face housing insecurity (defined as an inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently), according to research from the Hope Center at Temple University. The same survey also found 18 percent of community college students, and 14 percent of four-year college students, have faced homelessness. That precariousness is on full display now, as a number of schools have told students to leave campus due to coronavirus fears and finish the rest of the school year online; many who can’t get home to their parents, or don’t have parents to go home to, are scrambling to figure out if they can find and afford housing.
“It’s really a fairly large-scale problem, and I always worry that people don’t appreciate how many students we’re talking about,” says Howard Bell, senior vice president of Starfish, a non-profit that works with schools to help assist students facing these challenges. “Higher education comes with its challenges, and that’s fine. But we’re dealing with the fact that, systemically, we’re not helping these students at all.”
Bell, along with other school administrators and advocates, identify many contributing factors in addition to the rising cost of education. When students become 18, they lose many social supports, like free school lunch, and may then struggle to provide for themselves. Federal educational aid is geared towards covering tuition, not housing, food, and transportation, all necessary expenses for full-time students. And then there’s the changing student population. More Americans are attending college, including those with lower incomes and those who are older and looking to switch careers (more than a third of the nation’s population have completed four years of college or more). More than one in five undergraduate students are parents. Community college students, who are often commuters and don’t have the option of on-campus dormitories, are particularly affected by rising housing costs, especially in urban areas. The existing school aid and financing system, geared towards 18-year-old high school graduates with middle-class backgrounds and family support, seems increasingly antiquated and ineffective in light of these shifts.
Dreams for Change, a non-profit in San Diego, California, operates a parking program that creates a safe place for local students and other homeless people to sleep in their cars at night. CEO Teresa Smith says that it’s become truly challenging to help the changing community college population in particular. “They can’t ever catch a break,” she says. “In the days of old, college kids could get by with ramen and pasta, and shove five people into one apartment. Today, there’s no places to do that. That means a lot of people get pushed out.”
“When we started, I thought this was a recession-based issue and that it would get better as the economy recovered,” she says. “I’m seeing the complete opposite.”
The parking lot Dreams for Change operates for homeless San Diegans includes amenities and services meant to make the prospect of crashing in your car overnight a little more bearable. Those who park here have access to bathrooms with running water, available food, refrigerators, a grill to cook, a little office shack to do work, and case managers for supportive services. Smith says of the 70 or so vehicles that park here on a busy night, probably five of them are students at nearby universities. Nearly three-quarters of people who use the lot have a source of income.
The fact that students need to utilize the lot is indicative of the challenges they, and schools, face getting to graduation while navigating financial hardships. Smith says many of them feel embarrassment, shame, and isolation around their circumstances.
Colleges and legislators are beginning to address some of the financial barriers holding back many college students, creating food banks, allowing safe parking for the homeless on campus, and creating programs, like FAU’s, that target at-risk populations. But the solutions often only address the results of the housing problem, not the roots of the issue.
She points to many social safety net programs that could be altered or changed to help students. Free school breakfast and lunch, as well as SNAP benefits, are harder to access in college, and could be altered to be easier for full-time students to utilize. Increasing minimum wages would go a long way toward helping working students. “The Living Wage campaign isn’t spoken about as a tool to help college completion, but it definitely is one,” she says.
The majority of action on student poverty is focused on providing emergency food, and happening at the state level, though there is some congressional legislation aimed at campus food insecurity. California, for example, passed AB 74, a $19 million fund to create test programs across the state to support housing insecure students.
“It’s overwhelmingly about food,” she says. “There are a few exceptions, but not as much is being done to address housing. It’s just that much more expensive a problem to solve.”