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Housing, food are big problems for many in college

It’s early in the fall semester, but many college students are already checking their bank balances, worried how they’ll pay for tuition, books, and other expenses. For some the financial crunch gets even more drastic: They’re homeless.

“I get nervous because I know that the beginning of the semester means I will have to make the decision between doing homework — or actual work — in order to make sure I have somewhere to sleep,” said Justice Butler, a student at Houston Community College.

She’s scrambling to earn enough money to cover the rent until her Pell Grant funds come in. Two years ago, after being laid off from her job and unable to pay for her apartment, she became homeless and had to stand on a corner asking for help.

“I would hold a sign and pray as the light turned that someone would find it in their heart to give what they could.”

On the best days, she’d collect enough for a night at a local motel. But most nights she found refuge at a city bus stop or park bench, “jumping up every few minutes because I was afraid of being attacked.”

She’s hardly alone. A study this year by researchers from Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that more than a third of college students sometimes lack enough food to eat, and 36 percent also lack stable housing. The report said 9 percent report being homeless.

Things began to turn around when Justice was approached by a longtime friend who encouraged her to seek help at what seemed an unlikely spot.

“She told me to register for school at my local community college,” Justice said. “The first thing I said to my advisor — before my name — was: ‘Hi, I’m homeless.’”

Justice struggled through two semesters before realizing how financial aid and enrollment worked. Finally she secured financial aid and rented a room in a friend’s apartment. It was more than she could afford, but at least she had a place to sleep.

But while technically no longer homeless she still faced housing insecurity, unsure how long she would have a place to live. And as so often happens to financially strapped students, her luck ran out.

“I thought my funds during the summer semester would be the same as during the fall and spring,” she said.

“They weren’t, so instead I found myself after class again — holding a sign, hoping that I could make enough to continue to have a roof over my head.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, is founder of the Hope Lab and The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. She was lead author of the report on students’ basic needs, and saw the issues herself as a student.

“By the time that I got out of college and got into a doctoral program, I realized there was a lot of inequality all over the country,” Goldrick Rab said.

“It didn’t seem fair to me that people who were working really hard and were really talented couldn’t go and get a college education like I did just because they didn’t have money.”

She and her team began to build a movement they call #RealCollege, which advocates for students and focuses on “the struggles, triumphs, and realities of what it means to be in college today.”

“Through education, innovation, and collective action we seek to change the landscape of higher education so that all students can afford and complete their studies,” the #RealCollege website says.

Students can quickly get into financial straits, Goldrick-Rab said. “People need to understand that because life challenges — even homelessness — can happen to anybody at any moment, there have to be supports in place.”

Justice was invited to attend last year’s #RealCollege conference, and before an audience of 400 people, including college presidents and a commissioner of higher education, she shared her story.

“A lot of students are in homeless shelters but (still) attending college — and institutions wonder why their students drop out,” she told me recently. “It’s because students can’t survive. They come to school, but there’s nobody to help them.”

At this year’s #RealCollege conference in late September, Justice will share “InVisible,” a documentary she produced on her struggles with homelessness. I was interviewed for the film about my own experiences. Here’s what the trailer looks like:

Providing food and housing supports should be part of a college’s mission, Goldrick-Rab insists.

“Unless those issues and emergencies are addressed, students cannot learn and won’t be able to graduate,” she told me.

“A lot of the so-called academic interventions being tried right now are not working — and they are not working because students’ basic needs aren’t first being met.”

The #RealCollege 2018 conference is Sept. 29–30 at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more information, visit RealCollege.org.

“I pray that everyone goes home from our conference and does something,” Goldrick-Rab said. “No one should be leaving and just saying they are ‘sorry’ this is happening.”

(Note: See how some colleges tackle student poverty, in Focus magazine.)

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Tracy Chen
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