What About Homeless College Students?

Lonely Student
Lonely Student

In the past couple of weeks, many college students have been returning to their campuses after about a six-week long break between semesters. After a semester filled with late night study sessions, never-ending reading assignments, and mandatory group assignments that cause overwhelming stress and frustration, long breaks between semesters are well deserved. Students can take time to recuperate between the grueling demands that college can bring.

These breaks also serve as spaces in time where college students can take advantage of some other college perks like short winter classes, study-abroad trips, and internships. Apart from these opportunities, most students go home to enjoy a never-ending supply of free laundry and home cooked meals.

This sounds great... right?

But, what if students don't have a home?

This reality set in during the fall of my freshman year of college. At the end of the first semester, the dorm was shutting down for most of the winter break and I had to leave. This was a problem for me because, unlike most students, I could not return "home." I didn't have one. During my senior year of high school, I was deemed a "McKinney-Vento," or homeless, unaccompanied youth because I chose to escape verbal abuse in what would have considered my "home."

I never thought that being "homeless" in college would be an issue because I was planning on living on campus. I thought I had secured my living situation for the next four years when I submitted my housing deposit and enrollment forms. As a first-generation college student, I lacked the social capital in understanding that dorms closed for extended periods of time. Even if I was aware of this, I depended solely on financial aid to not only pay for my college tuition and fees, but also housing.

I didn't have enough money to even put a down-payment on a cell phone (which was required for a teenager without any credit), let alone get approved for an apartment. Even if I did, living on campus is often encouraged by institutions of higher education and is often associated with successful academic transitions to college.

So, where did I go?

During my freshman year I returned to live with the family that took me in during my senior year. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I worked at a summer camp that paid an unbearably low salary, but guaranteed free housing. Over the course of the following three years, I continued the trend of the housing shuffle, subletting friends' apartments, sleeping on couches, and so on before I was able to move into an off-campus apartment with a couple of friends (whose parents' could be guarantors) at the end of college. I found it interesting that, even amongst the other students on scholarships and financial aid, I was one of the very few students to remain in my college town over winter, spring, and summer breaks. At the time, I felt like I was the only one; but my story is one of many.

In recent years, college access initiatives have increased in order to help underrepresented students attain a higher education. As a result, colleges are being pushed and challenged to meet the needs of the students with stories that capture the hearts of admissions officers across the United States. Stories like From Homeless to Harvard are inspirational and give credit to the idea that with hard-work and determination, anyone can attend the institution of their choosing and succeed. Institutions and organizations use stories like mine as "feel-good" narratives and bragging rights for successfully supporting low-income students. But what are institutions doing to support homeless students, or students like them, that because of uncontrollable circumstances cannot go home?

Thanks to organizations like National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there is information that can help inform staff and leaders at these institutions about the issues that homeless college students face.

There have even been changes in federal legislation to help homeless students, like in 2008 when the FAFSA was changed to include unaccompanied youth as a pathway to prove an independent status. Furthermore, Senator Patty Murray is attempting to support homeless college students through federal legislation. These are steps in the right direction, but the problem still exists that some students will be kicked out of their dorms during breaks.

There are many ways in which homeless (and other low-income) students are continuously marginalized while in college. Kicking students out of their dorms with unrealistic housing alternatives only emphasizes that, at certain institutions, these students are not a priority. Colleges have to recognize that suggesting things like pet-sitting and camping as living alternatives can be devastating to students who already feel as if no one understands their circumstances. I urge colleges and policymakers alike to continue to consider homeless students when designing (and redesigning) their policies and work together with these students to understand how to best support them.