As Campuses Close, Where Does That Leave Students Without Housing?

image of student without housing sleeping in car“You know we have students who go here living out of their cars, right?” she said. It was spring, before COVID-19, and just another week for me volunteering at the student food pantry. But I suddenly stopped stocking shelves. Sister Rose, who runs the Hawks Harvest student food pantry at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington (UNCW), made me do a double take.

“I keep a list of students that are struggling with issues like this. If they get into any problems, I’m first on the list to call. They need all the help they can get.”

Housing insecurity is the inability to pay rent, afford utilities, or the need to move frequently. But housing insecurity can also be masked as paying only part of the rent, skimping on utility bills, or sleeping on friends’ couches or sometimes in their cars. The students most vulnerable to housing insecurity are first generation college students, students of color, and foster youth. To talk effectively about it, we need to consider student’s rising tuition costs and the high cost of housing together. For many students, living costs exceed and even dwarf the cost of tuition and fees. Unfortunately, it is the norm for college students of public two-year programs for room and board costs to account for more than 2/3 of the cost of tuition. With ever-increasing college enrollment, today’s students are also highly diverse in many ways. 26% of all undergraduate students and 30% of students at two-year institutions, for example, are raising dependent children while in school, while at least 56,000 college students in the U.S. are homeless based on FAFSA applications in 2013. Even this startling figure is, however, probably far lower than the true numbers. Unfortunately, there are major gaps in available data on how a student’s housing affects college success and graduation rates. It’s hard enough to estimate food insecure college student populations, but even more difficult for university student homelessness. While research shows that students who live on campus are more likely to graduate, most can’t afford the expense and obligatory meal plan that often goes with it.

image of student in sleeping bagStudents who live at home to save money or are forced to leave campus housing because of COVID-19 or other reasons particularly suffer from housing insecurity. We have a strong and beautiful Hispanic community in my college town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Many of my close friends are the first generation in their family to go to college, as are many other students at UNCW. However, living at home can put unique stresses on first generation college students and often causes strained relationships with family and friends who do not attend college. It doesn’t help that housing costs have steadily risen in the past 20 years. From 1994-1995 to 2013-2014, university room and board costs have increased by 14% for public two-year institutions, 54% at public four-year institutions, and 44% at private four-year institutions. Housing costs contribute substantially to student debt. After paying for tuition and rent, many students struggle to afford groceries so that housing and food insecurity are intertwined. Colleges determine living costs for students based on what is considered “reasonable” with no required formula or methodology to back up their numbers. With costs associated with the current COVID-19 crisis, for instance, many universities are sneaking into their contract agreements that if the institution switches to a fully online format and you are forced to move out of your dorm, there will be no reimbursement whatsoever for housing. This can leave many first- generation students and other housing insecure populations in precarious situations.

“Popular perception of the community college student is that he or she lives at home and enjoys family support,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center, which conducts surveys and produces policy papers on the economic challenges facing college students. “A more accurate description is that these are people who are very much on their own,” she said.

“They are working adults with children and they are in college because they are not making enough money and are trying to get ahead.”

Conflicts at Home, Lack of Affordable Housing, and a Lack of Sufficient Income

Like student food insecurity in college, homelessness and housing insecurity are complex and can stem from various circumstances. The issue is different for everyone, but many homeless youth have conflicts with their parents at home or with relatives and come from unstable housing situations. Examples include violence, neglect, physical or mental abuse, or severe conflict. A study by Journeys Home found that 62 percent of homeless students stated that conflict or a family breakdown drove them from home. Another aspect is a lack of affordable housing. The gap between minimum wage and the cost of housing is expansive and only growing. At the same time, federal housing subsidies and low-income housing availability have decreased. Family Promise found that renters must earn an average of $21.21 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in America. The absence of a living wage weighs heavily on college students on their own. Another dimension of the issue is a lack of sufficient income. Information from Family Promise shows that approximately 66 percent of poor children and those who either identify as homeless, or are at risk of becoming homeless, live in families where at least one parent works. Nevertheless, workers who earn less than $12 per hour at full-time jobs still fall below the poverty line of $25,100 for a family of four.

Solutions and Programs

Image of homeless studentSo, what are some universities and states doing to combat homelessness for college students? California state law requires that state colleges and universities give foster youth priority for campus housing, including vacation periods. Starting in 2009, every college in Colorado has appointed staff members as the campus single point of contact to support students experiencing homelessness. The University of Massachusetts provides case management, services referral, and a food pantry for students experiencing homelessness. Federal homelessness programs do not have college homelessness in mind, but recent legislation has improved. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 made homeless students eligible for federal TRiO student support programs. They are listed as independent students, meaning they do not need their parents’ signatures and financial information to apply for financial aid. This makes a world of difference.

These innovative solutions have helped homeless student populations immensely, but we need a consistent method and guidelines for to set institutional cost allowances, perform more research on institutional approaches to student housing insecurity, and better identify student needs. The coronavirus has exacerbated student homelessness as schools are telling students to leave campus and finish their semesters online. But many students are scrambling and struggling to find affordable housing. Federal aid for college students is designed to cover tuition, not food, housing, or transportation — and it shows.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) runs Educate Tomorrow, a program focused on students who are homeless or foster children; it has dramatically improved their graduation rates. Take Sara who has benefitted greatly from the FAU program. She grew up in foster care until the age of 16 and, after moving away from home for college, was experiencing food and housing insecurity. “Just think about something as simple as move-in day,” she says. “All these parents come with U-Hauls full of stuff for their kid’s dorm rooms, and then you have a foster youth with a garbage bag of clothes, the only thing they may own.” FAU’s program helps students like Sara navigate everything from applying for loans to providing a $500 stipend to decorate their dorm rooms. Since launching in 2014, the program has helped raise the graduation rate of this segment of the student population to 46 percent, compared to the national average of roughly 4 percent. Joe Murray, assistant dean at FAU, says he won’t rest until that rate is 100 percent.

Along with school programs and initiatives, nonprofits are also developing innovative help for homeless students. Dreams for Change, is a nonprofit in San Diego, California that runs a parking program to create a safe haven for students and other homeless people to park their cars at night without fear of harassment or repercussions. Multiple students utilize the space. Teresa Smith, CEO, explains that homeless college students face unique obstacles and challenges. “They can’t ever catch a break,” she says. “In the days of old, college kids could get by with ramen and pasta, and shove five people into one apartment. Today, there’s no place to do that. That means a lot of people get pushed out.” When the program first began the leaders of the organization thought it was merely due to the recession and would resolve with time. This was not the case-it was simply the norm.

The parking lot at Dreams for Change also offers amenities and other services such as access to restrooms, office space to work, case managers for supportive services, food and refrigerator space, and grills for cooking. Three quarters of the people making use of the space for parking are working and have some form of income. They accommodate approximately 70 vehicles and at least five of them are students from nearby universities. The fact that students rely on this support network shows the challenges they are facing as young adults striving toward higher education.

The effects of Covid-19 on colleges and universities across the country have been profound. As students contemplate an uncertain future, with rising tuition costs and fewer guarantees of on-campus housing, schools must ensure that their most vulnerable students are cared for.

Resources For Housing Insecure College Students

Check Your Campuses’ Online Resources

Check your campus food pantry website for resources and pertinent information. UNCW’s webpage offers housing assistance resources along with listing pantry hours and most needed donation items. Don’t have a web page for housing and food insecurity resources? Express your concerns and talk to higher ups about making changes! UNCW Hawks Harvest Webpage:

Cheap Apartments for College Students

Students can search for apartments by state, region, and city at Services include searching by price, setting a price cap, and responding to apartment-for-lease ads. Students can also place ads requesting apartments in a specific locale.

Resources for Homeless Youth – HUD Exchange

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development offers resources, pertinent links, and publications as part of its Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAP). Resources exist to inform and assist homeless learners and those who help them find housing. The homeless programs and initiatives include support for LGBTQ youth.

Student Housing Database

American Campus Communities provides an exhaustive database of student housing it manages, with a special function for searching by college location, state, or community. Features include roommate matching, on-site management and maintenance staff, and a community assistant (CA) or resident assistant (RA) training program for student renters.

National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness:

We are committed to ending hunger and homelessness by educating, engaging, and training college students to directly meet individuals’ immediate needs while advocating for long-term systemic solutions.

National College Attainment Network:

NCAN utilizes four strategies to assist states, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropists to provide better education access to low-income and underrepresented students. Their strategy of capacity building seeks to ensure that those who help students are well-trained and well-informed. By utilizing benchmarking, NCAN standardizes data that will help monitor, compare, and improve progress. Collective impact encourages groups that help support postsecondary completion rates. Lastly, their policy strategy fights to properly represent low-income and other disadvantaged students.

— Julianna Tresca, Rachel Carson Council Fellow, UNCW. Julianna Tresca is a senior at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington majoring in Geology and Environmental Science with a focus in geospatial technologies. Her RCC Fellowship project is on housing and food insecurity. [email protected]




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