More College Students Facing Homelessness

by Madeline Kirkpatrick

Many things come to mind when one imagines the archetypal college student; chimneys of textbooks, late-night partying—er, studying, the proverbial cap-and-gown for graduation. And while few people would add the word “homeless” to that list of characteristics, the truth is that for a growing number of college students across the United States, homelessness is as much a part of their college experience as homework is.

A 2009 study conducted by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth found that 47,204 college students applying for financial aid checked a box identifying themselves as “homeless” on their applications. However, college officials and homeless advocates believe there is a glaring discrepancy between the study’s findings and the actual number of homeless college students across the nation. They speculate that, due to the perceived social stigma attached to homelessness, homeless students often try to keep their plight hidden, which makes getting a definitive number difficult. Furthermore, by concealing their circumstances these students are essentially barring themselves from the possibility of receiving help.

Anyone who has attended college can attest to the tremendously challenging demands that come with it. These demands are even more challenging for homeless college students, so it comes as no surprise that many of them have trouble staying in school. But being a homeless college student is more than just being without housing. In addition to the usual pressures of college life, these students are preoccupied with figuring out where their next meal is coming from, where they can take a shower, wash their clothes, sleep for the night, and where they can study and do homework at night. This constant preoccupation with basic physiological and safety needs detracts from their overall college experience and also puts homeless college students at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to competing academically with their non-homeless counterparts.

Most people assume that if a person is able to afford to pay college tuition, they should be able to afford housing as well. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Even with the help of financial aid, many struggling students are forced to choose between paying for basic human necessities (i.e. groceries, rent and clothing) and their college tuition.

Some could argue that the answer to the problem is obvious: If you can’t afford college, drop out of school.And while that argument is rooted in logic, it discounts the human aspect of the issue: Higher education is still regarded as an essential step on the staircase of upward social mobility–so it stands to reason that a homeless college student’s decision to attend college is borne out of the hope that it will eventually improve their situation, not out ofan irrational choice to live beyond their means. Homeless college students deserve to be supported in their efforts to become educated and thereby overcome their impoverished state rather than be relegated to the margins of campus and community life.

So what can we do about this?

The first step to finding a solution to this issue is becoming aware of the problem itself. Yes, that sounds almost insultingly simple, but society’s collective ignorance is the fertile ground in which social issues grow. Becoming aware begins the process of weeding out the problem.

Secondly, it would behoove college officials to formally acknowledge the issue of student homelessness by adding it to the list of other “standard” student concerns as well as establish student services that effectively address the issue. Doing so will start the process of erasing the social stigma attached to college student homelessness and will encourage those students to come out of the shadows and receive the help they need.

Finally, look for ways you can help to improve the situation on an individual level. A group of UCLA students created a web site with a secure database where users offer temporary housing to their fellow students who need a place to crash, even if it’s just for a night. The student-only web site, backed by the president of UCLA’s student association, appears to be safe and successful.

If we Americans are going to continue to subscribe to the gospel of the American Dream, then we had better start living up to it. No one should have to choose between becoming an educated member of society and having their basic needs as a human being met.


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