While an undergrad at the University of Southern California (USC), I regularly took five classes, or eighteen units, each semester, had a part-time job where I worked ten to fifteen hours a week, had another writing job for the university, and acted as the director of media for a start-up nonprofit organization. Between my part-time job, classes, meetings, and other commitments, my days usually lasted eleven to thirteen hours with little to no breaks in between responsibilities. Maintaining this schedule felt near impossible, but every night after I was completely exhausted, I was able to come to my apartment, eat dinner, take a shower, and sleep in my own bed.
Being in college is hard, even if all of your basic needs are met. However, on top of maintaining a good GPA, staying committed to extracurriculars, and working a part-time job, college students all over the nation are experiencing homelessness. That nonprofit I worked for, and which I helped start, sought to aid those students, and here I would like to share something of what I’ve learned from the experience, and the priorities policymakers ought to consider when seeking to help these students as well.
The need for such aid is a dramatic one. In a recent study, the Hope Center for Community, College, and Justice surveyed 167,000 students from 171 two-year institutions and fifty-six four-year institutions, and found that 17 percent of respondents in a survey reported that they experienced homelessness in the last year.
College affordability is an issue close to the heart of the progressive movement. The need for a degree in higher education is already integral for economic mobility and independence, and its importance keeps on growing. However, despite the unaffordability of a quality education, college students around the nation are earning their degree by any means necessary, even if it means sacrificing their basic needs.
Despite the unaffordability of a quality education, college students around the nation are earning their degree by any means necessary, even if it means sacrificing their basic needs.
As we fight for an equitable tomorrow in attaining a degree in higher education, we must continue to remind ourselves that there are college students today who are currently suffering from the lack of college affordability, which leads them to experience both homelessness and hunger; and we must do what we can to support them. Fortunately, there is much that we can do.
In December 2018, I was part of a group of students who decided to open our own space to house college students experiencing homelessness. After almost a year of countless struggles in fundraising, development, and zoning, we were able to open in November 2019. Trojan Shelter is the second organization in the nation to house college students experiencing homelessness. Bruin Shelter, the older sibling, is the first. Together they house fifteen students. It was through this experience that I gained much insight to how invisible college homelessness truly is. It’s difficult to understand that a university like USC, with an endowment of almost $6 billion, has students who experience homelessness. However, no school, no matter how rich, is exempt for this. College homelessness is an issue that is just starting to be addressed by researchers and policymakers in the last decade. As we learn more about the issue and the specific needs of college students, we must ensure that we continue to pass equitable policies that ensure our classmates can have a successful journey in higher education.
A Background In College Homelessness
Research about college homelessness gained steam about a decade ago. Colleges are often reluctant to research homelessness on their campuses because of how it could change their public perception. The very existence of homelessness would prove that they do not provide full-need financial aid like they promised. In my experience in talking with college students who experienced homelessness while working with Trojan Shelter, college students often underreport their housing status. They don’t want their colleagues, classmates, and professors to see them with a lens of homelessness and hunger. This is because experiencing homelessness is traumatizing, and living through it while in college adds another layer of depth and complexity to that suffering. It is difficult to address an issue that isn’t reported.
This is why accurate numbers are hard to access. Though the survey done by the Hope Center gives us a general idea of what college homelessness looks like throughout the nation—with 17 percent of respondents saying they were homeless in the previous year—their numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Because colleges do not do their own research on homelessness, the Hope Center cannot have campus-wide surveys for every institution they research—they can only ask students to fill out a voluntary survey. Furthermore, the survey predominantly covers public two-year colleges, and to a lesser extent public four-year institutions. Private non-profit and for-profit colleges are left out of the picture.
In my experience working with and on the behalf of students experiencing homelessness, I have found there are many misconceptions about college homelessness. First, people do not think it’s possible to experience homelessness while in college. I’ve talked to Los Angeles nonprofit leaders, college administrators, professors, public officials and their staff, and countless other individuals, and they were flabbergasted by the idea of college homelessness, especially at four-year institutions. They couldn’t believe that scholarships, financial aid, and student loans still weren’t enough to attend college. Many people also believed that it’s possible to work your way through college. But with today’s minimum wage and the cost of living, students are almost destined to lose that battle. I found that people were quick to assume that a student might not be applying to enough scholarships. They might be spending too much money. They might not want to take out another loan, even if they are eligible for it.
That is far from the case. Even though colleges try to meet students at full-need, it is often still not enough to cover the full cost of attending college. Indeed, a student may have tapped into scholarships, the Pell grant, private and public students loans, work study, and part-time jobs. However, as much money and aid that may be, these grants and programs are all too often insufficient.
High cost of living, unaffordable housing, low minimum wage, and the cost of tuition are some of the main financial reasons that could be addressed through policy in all levels of government. But college homelessness is a much more nuanced issue than that, and requires an equally nuanced response. I’ve heard stories of students being kicked out of their own homes after coming out as queer. Some students may be escaping domestic violence. Others may be sending money to their family, sacrificing their own basic needs. They end up sleeping in classrooms, lounges, and libraries, and use university gyms to clean up and lockers to hold their belongings. Situations like these can be so unique that there is no one-size-fits-all policy that can eradicate the issue instantly.
State and Local Governments Can Make Additional Budgets to Address College Homelessness
Addressing college homelessness is two-pronged: first, we must address the affordability of college, something that the progressive movement is committed to fighting for. Second, we must also simultaneously create social security nets that students can fall back on if they are in a position of housing and food insecurity. Free college programs that only cover tuition are not enough to prevent college homelessness.
Free college programs that only cover tuition are not enough to prevent college homelessness.
Here’s how we can make both of these possible: create budgets specifically designed for housing college students experiencing homelessness, under the aegis of “academic interim housing.”
Though many colleges, like USC, Harvard, and Princeton, have billions of dollars in their endowments that could easily be used to fund programs for college students experiencing homelessness, university-led initiatives will undoubtedly let many students fall between the cracks. This is because universities will need to enforce certain eligibility qualifications and requirements, such as a minimum requirement of enrollment, possibly a minimum standard of academic achievement, and a minimum standard of need. Because college homelessness, and the reasons one may be experiencing it, vary so widely and can shift so often and dramatically, not all students experiencing homelessness will qualify for these programs all the time, or even at all. However, government-led initiatives can apply broader eligibility criteria that are not dependent on the varying standards of universities, thereby allowing more students to receive consistent and sufficient support.
Trojan Shelter is funded solely by private donations. In order to access public funding, one of the things they would have to do is adapt their programs to fit what local government classifies as a successful shelter. However, because college homelessness is such a newly visible issue, not many solutions have been created to address it, including solutions from local city governments. If Trojan Shelter wanted to apply for public funding, they would have to drastically change their programs to abide by current city regulations. This can ultimately hurt the students Trojan Shelter is trying to help because the city does not have standards meant to address the specific needs of students and college homelessness. It would force the organization to deviate from its mission and not have the outcomes and impacts they set out to do.
For example, the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA) is Los Angeles’s public entity that manages the budget the city has to work with to address homelessness. One of the tools they use to distribute money is through the Coordinated Entry System (CES). CES uses information such as gender, age, employment status, income, and health, and matches an individual to an organization and program that meets those specific needs. In addition, each bed that is registered under CES gets funding from LAHSA. What is excluded is status as a college student. In talking with staff members at LAHSA while looking for support for Trojan Shelter, they told me that if we wanted to register a certain number of beds in the CES database (thus get funding per bed registered), we would have to give up having the main qualification be status as a college student for those specific beds. Within this specific policy, status as a college student is not even considered. There would still be a chance that we could get college students in those beds, but status as a student would not be the determining factor, something that is integral to our organization, as our programs are designed to specifically help college students.
By creating a specific category or budget for “academic interim housing,” we can meet the needs of college students by setting residency terms to a full school year (nine months), and create other specific and tailored programs and metrics. Not only will this provide dedicated funding to the shelters that already exist, it will also pave the way for more spaces to be created.
By creating a specific category or budget for “academic interim housing,” we can prioritize the needs of college students by setting residency terms to a full school year (nine months), and create other specific and tailored programs and metrics.
This specific budget can be set to address goal setting for academic achievement, transportation funds to and from school, employment services, food stamp enrollment, healthy meals, mental health support, and support to transition to stable living, just to name a few.
However, this budget must be in addition to the overall budget local cities have to address homelessness. For example, youth shelters house young people from the ages of 18 through 25, a similar age range that college shelters would house. Though both types of programs have the mission to house people who are young and experience homelessness, there are general demographic differences that justify distinction. Oftentimes, residents in youth shelters are not college students. Many of them have programs aimed to get their residents started in community college and a part-time job to set them on track to their independence. Residents in college shelters, however, are already in college and are more often closer to the “finish line” towards independence. Programs like these will need to be designed in a way that helps them finish college while also meeting basic needs, without imposing requirements on them that would force them to delay or abandon their studies in order to continue receiving aid. The distinction between these populations must be addressed through additional funding, not through shifting resources.
How Local Government and Colleges Can Work Together
Though government-led initiatives can serve a broad range of students, there still needs to be a close partnership between colleges and universities and local city governments so that they can foster specialized care for their students. By doing so, students will have specific and accessible resources and services on the campus they attend. An efficient way to distribute this budget would be to give money to (1) colleges directly, and (2) local city homelessness budgets.
By distributing money to each of these entities, each one can use their strengths in their institution to effectively address homelessness. Colleges will have authority over evaluating the needs of their own students while local city government homelessness departments will have the authority, experience, and resources for developing effective housing programs through local nonprofits that specialize in work like this. A close working relationship between the two can create effective programs.
There is some precedence for leveraging schools and taking into account the unique needs of students in addressing homelessness: the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is the primary piece of legislation dedicated towards youth, homelessness, and education. This law allows, among other things, states to have a budget to learn more about the nature and extent of the problems children experiencing homelessness and youths face “in gaining access to public preschool programs and to public elementary schools and secondary schools”. However, the language in the bill specifies that the act is tailored towards preschool, elementary, and secondary education, not higher education.
What I’ve seen through working with Trojan Shelter is that these college students are so close to the finish line. They are studying hard, expanding their minds, and developing critical thinking that will take them far in their respective professional and personal trajectories. All we need to do is find the resources to give them that last final push towards graduation and their college degree.
Editorial note: This commentary was revised following additional expert input.