When the College Cost Reduction and Access Act took effect in 2009, neither lawmakers nor school administrators had any idea how many college students would check the box on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) -- the document that determines eligibility for Pell grants, subsidized loans and work-study awards that help students pay for college or vocational training -- to indicate that they were homeless.
At last tabulation, the number was 58,000, a small percentage of the 20.2 million students presently enrolled in both undergraduate and graduate study. Nonetheless, school counselors and advocates believe the number is starkly inaccurate and represents a mere fraction of university students who actually lack a permanent home.
Shirley Fan-Chan, director of U-ACCESS at the University of Massachusetts Boston, provides on-campus support to students who are experiencing food insecurity and homelessness. "Most students think of homelessness as being on the street, sleeping in doorways, and for the most part, college students don't do this," she told Truthout. "They hide out. They may stay in one place for a few days or a week, then move somewhere else, bouncing from friend to friend with no fixed place to stay. But they think to themselves, 'Well, this is college. As long as I have a roof over my head, I'm okay.'"
And if that roof happens to be in a tent, subway car or vehicle, so be it. As Fan-Chan notes, students typically do their damnedest to make do, showering in the gym and visiting the emergency food pantries that are increasingly popping up on US campuses.
Causes of Student Homelessness
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been studying college affordability and its connection to retention since 2008. Her initial research involved analyzing the impact of the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars.
"My team went out to get the lay of the land from students, and asked them how it was going paying for college," she said. "We expected to hear them tell us that they were having trouble affording their books or buying a laptop but what we heard about was food insecurity; one student told us that she was living in a shelter. This stunned us and we had to ask whether this was happening on a larger scale."
"A lot of schools now leave a dorm or two open during school breaks for students with no place to go."
Shortly thereafter, Goldrick-Rab's team interviewed 4,300 students at 10 geographically diverse community colleges. In parsing the results, they discovered that homeless and hungry students were a varied lot: Some had not had enough to eat or had been homeless throughout their childhoods; some had aged out of foster care and had no family to turn to; and some had a falling out with their parents or guardians, or had their family ties altered by deportation or incarceration. Another cohort had grossly underestimated the cost of college and come up short. Lastly, Goldrick-Rab found students living with a host of mental illnesses. For some, completing coursework while living independently proved nearly impossible.
Danielle Stelluto, 29, a student at the City University of New York's (CUNY) Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, knows about homelessness firsthand. Stelluto was living in Florida with her infant son in 2008 when she lost her job as a telemarketer. Unemployment benefits carried her into 2009 but when they were exhausted she fell behind on her rent and received an eviction notice.
Stelluto had grown up in New York so she opted to head north, crossing her fingers that there would be opportunities for her in the Big Apple. She immediately went to social services and was given a subsidized apartment in Far Rockaway, Queens, paid for through a voucher program.
"I got a job as a cashier and my children -- by then I'd given birth to my daughter so I had two kids -- were in day care," Stelluto said. "Things were good until 2012 when the mayor ended the voucher program and I ended up back in the shelter system. This time I was sent to the Bronx. I tried to commute to my job but it took three hours to get there by subway so I had to quit." By then she'd joined an organization called Picture the Homeless. "They taught me how to be an advocate and helped me enroll in college, but from 2012 until Christmas 2015 my kids and I lived in the shelter," she told Truthout.
The challenges were enormous. Not only was Stelluto required to attend shelter meetings that conflicted with her classes, but also she and her children were crammed into a room that she described as "small, moldy, rodent-infested and noisy." On top of this, there was nowhere for her to do her homework or study. "I had to squeeze my assignments in between classes," she said. That said, for the most part, she added, her teachers have been supportive. "I always tell them what's going on and most have gone above and beyond to inspire and motivate me, helping me with time management so I don't fall behind."
It's worked and Stelluto expects to earn her associate's degree in December 2016. She and her kids now live in an apartment near the college and if all goes according to plan, she will enroll in a Bachelor of Arts program next spring. Nonetheless, she anticipates bumps and obstacles as she moves forward.
Private Colleges Prove Ill-Equipped to Respond
Rebecca Hackney, a 2014 graduate of North Carolina's Elon University, is well acquainted with the many possible obstacles to college completion. At the end of her junior year, she says, her life began to unravel. First, her mother lost her job and could no longer help her daughter financially. Secondly, Hackney learned that she could not be a resident adviser in the dorms during her senior year -- something that had cut her housing costs by half and provided her with a small stipend for two years -- because as an education major, she was required to do her student teaching that fall and the university had a rule against doing both simultaneously. Since Hackney could not afford to pay the full dorm fee out of pocket, she slept in her car, stayed with friends and commuted two hours away to her mother's home in Raleigh on weekends.
Eventually, Hackney was able to connect with an adopt-a-college-student program sponsored by Grace Reformed Baptist Church in the nearby town of Mebane. "Sometime after Thanksgiving I moved in with this family. They had seven kids of their own so they had a full house, but they welcomed me and only asked for $200 a month," she said. "By that point I was at the end of my rope and thought I'd have to drop out of school. When I was going through homelessness, I had tunnel vision. It was only after I found a place to stay that I realized how stressful it had been and how dramatically it had affected my academic performance. But it set me on a social justice path so, in the end, the experience really helped me."
When asked whether the college had any support services available to students in her predicament, Hackney said, "Elon is a private school for affluent students. At the time, I didn't think the housing office could help me. I didn't know other students who'd been through anything similar."
This sort of isolation is not the experience of Stelluto and other students who attend many of the country's public colleges and universities. Although most schools have yet to acknowledge the extent of student hunger and homelessness, a number of programs have begun to step up. Tacoma Community College in Washington State, for one, has, since 2013, partnered with that city's Housing Authority to provide 25 three-year housing vouchers to homeless or near-homeless students and their dependents. The program provides a rent subsidy -- the amount varies by family size and household income -- and is intended to help students complete their associate's degrees and become self-sufficient.
No other school has anything comparable; nonetheless, numerous programs are in place to help students without adequate means to complete their degrees.
According to Cyekeia Lee, director of Higher Education Initiatives at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, more than 400 of the country's 4,706 colleges and universities are taking steps to address the crisis. "A decade ago there was nothing," she said, "so while there's still a lot to be done, there has been some movement. A lot of schools now leave a dorm or two open during school breaks for students with no place to go, or partner with local hotels, and are raising private money to address housing instability. Our model is to have a single point of contact (SPC) for students in need, an office that will help students through case management, personal care, access to a food pantry or to connect them with grants, scholarships and temporary or permanent housing. The SPC also works with the state education authority to identify homeless students who are graduating from high school to hand these students off to colleges." Prior to having one office offer these services, Lee reports that programs worked "in silos" with little coordination.
Colleges Struggle to Identify Homeless Students
Marcy Stidum, the director of the Campus Awareness, Resource and Empowerment Center (CARE) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, told Truthout, "Sometimes students call or come in on their own as soon as they're admitted to tell us they're homeless. Or sometimes we learn about their situation from financial aid, from the paperwork they file to appeal a grade, or from students or faculty members who've learned that a particular student is in a bad situation."
Kennesaw State University has had a food pantry since 2014 and has given out approximately 10,000 pounds of food over the past two years. Some is donated and some comes from the Atlanta Community Food Bank; students are given prepacked bags of nonperishable items that accommodate dietary needs and family size. CARE also dispenses donated gift cards -- for local supermarkets and shops as well as Zipcar -- and maintains emergency housing for short-term use. In addition, depending on the particulars, CARE can help students with a first month's rent, security deposit or arrears to keep them housed.
But CARE does more than hand out benefits. "We do a lot of case management to make sure that the person can maintain him or herself," Stidum said. Sometimes, this means helping them get an on- or off-campus job or learn how to balance a checkbook or open a bank account. "We had a young white woman come in a few months ago. She had grown up wealthy and had a fancy car but her parents had booted her out of the house for having an African-American friend. She'd never paid a bill or done a budget. She had someone she could stay with but once she found work we had to teach her how to budget and balance the job with taking classes."
Like Kennesaw, Florida State University (FSU) runs a food pantry and organizes programs for people who've aged out of foster care, have a history of abuse or neglect, or who are experiencing hunger or homelessness. "We make sure we don't talk about hunger or homelessness as something shameful," said Tadarrayl M. Starke, executive director of the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE) at FSU. "We talk about our own struggles. I tell the students my story. My family was never homeless but we were food insecure. I tell them about running out of funds. This makes it more likely that they'll want to be engaged. We're big on personal relationships here."
FSU's CARE office also connects students with grants and zero-interest loans that can be used to pay rent arrears or find student or community housing.
Breaking Through Roadblocks
It makes a dent, of course, but as essential as it is to attend to concrete needs, Shirley Fan-Chan of the University of Massachusetts Boston emphasizes that there are roadblocks that prevent CARE and U-ACCESS from being as effective as they might be.
U-Mass does not have dorms, and instead relies on the shelter system to provide a place for students to stay. "The wait in Boston to get into a youth shelter is two to four weeks and while we can bring the student to intake, we then need to find them a safe place to stay while they go through the process," she said, adding:
The adult shelters, for people over age 24, are first-come, first-served and you need to line up at 5 pm. Once you get inside, you can't leave until 7 am. This doesn't work for students who have night jobs or who take evening classes. Worse, even if you get them housing, homelessness is just one of the issues the student is dealing with. Most of those who are homeless, or have been homeless, are traumatized by what they've been through and they need ongoing support and counseling from professionals as well as peers if they are going to succeed in school.
The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth champions the single point of contact model as particularly effective, but some schools have brought in Single Stop, a private entity created by the Robin Hood Foundation to address the needs of low-income students on campus. Nine states have on-campus Single Stop programs and the organization operates at seven CUNY-affiliated New York City colleges. What is offered varies by locale, but students can typically get free groceries, get help with tax preparation and consult lawyers about civil matters. The staff also helps with financial planning and screens people for public benefits.
"Our pantry serves 600 to 800 families a month," said Hattie Elmore, director of Single Stop at Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College. "We also have fresh vegetable distribution in collaboration with the campus farm during harvest season and do cooking demonstrations to show students how to prepare items that may be unfamiliar."
The gap, however, is housing. Although Elmore says that students can apply for a grant of up to $500 each semester they're successfully enrolled, it's admittedly insufficient since the need for affordable shelter far outstrips availability.
It's an issue, of course, that reaches far beyond college or university boundaries.
Equally enraging, while some campuses are struggling to raise money for emergency food and shelter, elite campuses are moving in the opposite direction, building student housing with amenities, including pools, climbing walls and rooftop gardens. Meanwhile, room and board ran between $7,500 and $15,000 a year in 2015-16 and is expected to increase into the foreseeable future.