Homeless College Students: An Epidemic

By: Malena Esposito 

As a part of the senior class, I know that many of my peers are excited about their future. College is a crazy time, or so I’ve heard. The classes, the friends, the meal plans, the dorms, the all-nighters, the finals, the freshman fifteen, the lack of money—what’s not to love?

But unfortunately, not everyone gets these luxuries. Many are unaware of the alarming amount of college students that are homeless—living out of their car, or elsewhere.

In 2015, FAFSA reported that on a nationwide basis, there are about 58,000 homeless students on a nationwide basis. To compare, that’s more than the 52,000 undergraduate students at East Carolina University and UNC Chapel Hill combined.

These callous circumstances were only brought to my attention recently through a post on my Twitter feed. NowThis, a “left-wing media website,” posted a 7-minute-long video talking to students that face this challenge about how they continue their education despite severe struggles.

In the video, three students across two California schools are interviewed. The first student, Jasmine, is a 23-year-old senior majoring in kinesiology. She attends Humboldt State University and was granted a full academic scholarship. Jasmine lives out of her van, complete with decorations and food storage. Along with a backpack, she carries around another bag that holds her clothes, toothbrush, shoes, etc., using her school’s locker to hold additional belongings and locker rooms to get washed up and changed.

The reported continued by asking Jasmine a series of questions while walking around the “beautiful” campus.

“Do they know that you’re homeless?” “Yes, now. I tell people because that’s how you find out who else is going through that.”

“On an average night, how many students would you say are sleeping in the parking lot?” “On an average night, probably about three or four…that I know of.”

“What about taking out loans to pay for rent?” “I’m on a scholarship. The thing is is I’ve turned in all those applications, I’ve paid all those fees, still didn’t get any responses.”

Additionally, Jasmine said that “the school should really help educate students on how to apply for housing. Make it a mandatory thing.”

The second student, Nolan, is a junior majoring in geology. He also attends Humboldt State and was asked questions similar to Jasmine.

“Is this what you thought it would be like?” “You know, I didn’t really have a super-solid plan. I just knew I needed to get up here and start school, and living in my car just felt like the best option for me.”

“What about taking out loans to pay for rent?” “I don’t want that financial burden right now, coming out of school and having to worry about that right away.”

“What do you see in the future for yourself?” “Staying true to myself and being a well rounded person, too. But I’m focusing on becoming the best geologist I can be so I can be hirable, right? At the end of it all.”

When the pair made it to his car, Nolan told the reporter that it was a “big deal” because he was “his first houseguest.”

The third student, Amanu, attends CSU’s Long Beach campus. Last year, she spent 7 months in her small car. Amanu said that she made the size work by putting sun visors up and curled up in the backseat. Eventually, the university helped her by letting her stay in a dorm for a month.

Furthermore, NowThis also interviewed Chante Catt and Genesis Jara. Catt, who was once a homeless Humboldt student herself, is now a member of the university’s Center Board and has started the Homeless Student Advocate Alliance. When asked if housing should be a right, Catt said, “I really believe so, especially when we’re trying to consider retentions and giving people access to get out of economic issues and come out of first-generation college education.” Jara is the student body president of CSU Long Beach. She informed us that there are 6 temporary beds for emergency housing for her school that has over 37,000 students. When asked how many beds they will need, she said “I honestly think it’s in the hundreds.” Jara then explained that “students, in order to qualify to be placed into an emergency housing dorm, you basically have to prove they’re having affordability issues and then have to exhaust all of their financial resources which include FAFSA and basically loans. We’re basically putting a student in debt at times to help them.”

Subsequently, NowThis reached out to CSU Long Beach themselves regarding the matter, asking how many students seek emergency housing. Their answer? “Don’t know, but the numbers are significantly growing as our program awareness has increased,” said Jeff Klaus, Associate Vice President of Student Life and Development.

The video ends with this conclusion made by the reporter: “Any long-term solution needs action from the local, state, and federal government and from schools themselves to confront the problem. But for now, students face impossible choices between food and shelter, between a tough reality in the present and potentially unpayable debts in the future.”

In the comments below, Twitter users voiced their own opinions.

“I go to Humboldt and the craziest part of this is how many vacant rooms there are on campus. I didn’t have a roommate for a whole 4 months.”

“The five billion dollars for a wall. Couldn’t we use it for something? I don’t know what tho…”

“Although this school is beautiful this almost happened to me.They threaten to cut off your food card and kick you out of your dorm if you are behind on payments.”

And although 1 in 5 college students are homeless at Humboldt State University, it’s not the only campus with these astounding numbers.

In March 2017, the University of Wisconsin released a “study that surveyed students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. It found that 14 percent were homeless. Those findings build on a study released last year by California State University that estimated that 8 to 12 percent of its students were homeless.” In addition, the study found that “only 11 percent of the homeless students surveyed reported making more than $15 an hour.”

In April 2017, the New York Times released an article discussing the harsh situations several college students face. The author documents a series of perspectives, all of which have an underlying theme: It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter where you go, it doesn’t matter how much your parents make, it can still happen to you.

Here are some quotes that support that message:

“In essence, more low-income students are arriving on campus without a safety net; should they lose their job or their roommates kick them out, parents may not be able to just cut them a check. Most community college students are older—29, on average—and on their own. They may not be willing to tell their parents how dire their situation is. ‘This is not just happening in urban poor communities,’ said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. ‘It affects kids from working-class families across the state, in rural communities and in communities of color.’ The economy looks very different from what it used to, he said. ‘Homelessness now affects working-class and formerly middle-class families.’”

“Housing insecurity doesn’t care about the prestige of your institution, or whether it’s a two-year or a four-year college,” Luke Shaw said. “It doesn’t care about your gender or your religion or your background. Hard circumstances can fall on anyone. Some people have a safety net for that kind of thing. Some people don’t. And when a student ends up homeless, it can be exceedingly difficult to stay in school and thus break the cycle of poverty. There are practical problems — where to do your homework, for example—and, of course, there is the emotional toll. If you are worried about finding a place to sleep, how are you ever going to focus on schoolwork?”

However, it appears as though not all hope is lost.

Amherst College, a private university in Massachusetts, keeps their dorms open over summer, providing students in need a place to stay.

Back in Los Angeles, a “group of students at the University of California opened a small homeless shelter called Students 4 Students.” Located at a church close to campus, the organization “offers meals, nine beds, and a study room so residents have a place to do their work.” Most of their inhabitants come from UCLA, Santa Monica College, and the local community college.

Up north in Pennsylvania, football coach Bill Zwaan started a drive in 2014 for the students that stay on campus for winter and summer breaks at West Chester University. After they “were running out of ideas on what to get each other” for their annual Christmas exchange, Zwaan and his ten siblings decided to spend the same amount on gifts for the homeless population.

“It just spread like wildfire,” said Zwaan. “Last year was a huge success and this year is even bigger.”

Additionally, Bryn Mawr College provides some students with housing and meals at no charge, and the University of Pennsylvania left their doors open this holiday season, complete with dorms and “reloadable debit cards for meals and groceries.”

Overall, college is supposed to be one of the most memorable times of your life, but not for reasons like this. School is stressful enough—dealing with a new environment, new course load, and new bills—but worrying about where you’re going to sleep that night is unimaginable. To be honest, I was completely ignorant about this problem until I watched NowThis’ video on the topic. As someone who’s about to transition to a college lifestyle, it scares me to know how many students face this issue, and how easily it can happen. I want to make more people aware of others’ circumstances and encourage them to help out. I want to start the conversation about homeless college students.

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