With the increasing cost of attending college in the United States, it should come as no surprise that many college students have to make considerable sacrifices for their education. One of the most substantial sacrifices is a place to live. What may be a surprise, however, is that, despite how prevalent the issue is, most homeless students walk around college campuses completely unnoticed by their peers. It is a unique issue and is one that colleges and universities struggle to address.
Homelessness is a major issue across the United States. On any given night in the United States in Jan. of 2016, about 549,928 people were homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that number, roughly 194,716 were people in families and 355,212 were individuals, according to HUD. Roughly seven percent of the total homeless population were unaccompanied youth, and 39, 471 were homeless veterans, HUD found.
Before the recession in 2008, about 2.5 to 3 million men, women, and children were homeless each year, according to another study, “Homeless in America”, reported in Jan. 2015 from the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP). This included 1.35 million children, as well as one million people employed full or part-time, yet still unable to afford housing.
Since the recession in 2008, the situation has worsened, according to another study, “Homeless in America”, reported in Jan. 2015 from the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP).
The report found that 1.2 million children homeless during the 2012-2013 school year, while almost 2.5 overall were homeless in 2013.
The number of people who have lost their homes or live double-up with family or friends due to economic necessity was around 7.4 million people in 2012 (the most recent year data is available), according to the NLCHP. Racial and ethnic minorities were excessively affected, the same report found. Throughout 2012, 27 percent of African-American households paid over 50 percent of their incomes in rent. The same can be said of 24 percent of Hispanic households, and 21 percent of Asian households, per the NLCHP. Only 14 percent of Caucasian households paid 50 percent of their incomes in rent in 2012.
Additionally, a crisis exists in affordable rentals, a June 2014 study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found. More than 1-in-4 renters, or 27 percent, paid over half of their income in rent, and the number of cost-burdened renters has increased each year since 2007, the study found.
The safety nets in place to prevent such crises has yet to succeed in providing sufficient resources; of those poor enough to qualify for low-income housing, only 1-in-4 actually receive it, according to the NLCHP.
Homeless and Housing Insecurity
There are two different phrases used to define homelessness, according to the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), an organization aimed at supporting community college boards in their efforts to govern and develop policies that focus on meeting community needs.
“Homelessness means that a person is without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building or outside, while housing insecurity includes a broader set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently,” the ACCT found in their March, 2017 national study of basic needs insecurity in higher education.
Why College Students?
While there isn’t sufficient national data for the exact number of homeless college students, the last estimate came from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), where about 58,000 students identified as homeless, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY). Since there are over 20 million college students in the U.S., 58,000 students is probably not an accurate estimate, according to NAEHCY. Many colleges aren’t required to keep records of the homeless students on their campuses, which makes the only meaningful data that which comes from the FAFSA.
About 51 percent of the community college students surveyed have dealt with housing insecurity in the last year, according to the ACCT’s 2017 report. This would include everything from insufficient funds to pay rent or utilities, frequently moving from place to place, or living with friends or family to save money, all of which are particularly difficult for students with children. The study also found that 14 percent of students had experienced homelessness at some point in the last year.
There are many factors to such high rates of homeless or housing insecure college students. The cost of college and college-related expenses alone should be enough of an explanation. It isn’t only that college students are working at least part-time; they’re also borrowing money in the form of student loans to cover college expenses.
“It’s that they’re working, and borrowing,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist who led the ACCT’s research team told NPR, “and sometimes still falling so short that they’re going without having their basic needs met.”
This challenge is particularly relevant to community colleges. Very few of community colleges offer on-campus housing, nor do they have caseworkers on staff to support this population, per the ACCT.
Roughly one-third of students who experience housing (and/or food) insecurity were employed and receiving financial aid, according to the ACCT. But as much as financial aid can help students, it can also be a considerable barrier.
When applying for financial aid, students must present information about their parents or guardians, and many of these students do not have the proper documentation to receive aid. The burden of proof falls onto the student to prove financial need.
It’s easy to assume that such students in need can simply apply for food stamps or other government aid.
What they don’t know is that for a college student, who doesn’t have children, to get food stamps requires that they work 20 hours a week,” Goldrick-Rab said.
The United Way of Lorain County offers assistance for those struggling to pay rent, utilities, or other emergencies. More information is available by visiting Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority’s website at lhma.org.