That’s the estimated number of the nation’s college students who are homeless
BY TED GREGORY
This month, with a mix of anxiety and exhilaration, college students across the country took their final exams, and then packed their bags for home.
It’s a little different for undergraduates Malachi Hoye and Caprice Manny. They don’t have homes to return to — at least not in the traditional sense. Hoye and Manny are among the estimated 56,000 college students nationwide who are considered homeless.
Such young people are a somewhat broadly defined population that experts say is underreported and expected to grow. But efforts to accommodate homeless college students are relatively new and fragmented. Schools, the federal government, a fledgling national organization and a pilot project by a Chicago nonprofit — are among those trying to solve a complicated challenge.
“I don’t have any trust fund anywhere. I don’t have any backup money,” Manny, 21, said in an apartment where the nonprofit, La Casa Norte, placed her in March. “I don’t have anything from any outside sources. It literally is just me. So, if I don’t get my crap together, I am just going to be out there.”
From house to house
Manny, who finished her second year at Truman College this month, for years had bounced from the homes of sisters, grandparents and friends, as well as a couple of long-term housing centers, after leaving her mother’s home in 2011. She called the rent-free living program “a blessing” that let her focus on 12 credit hours of classes, which met Monday through Thursday at Truman, and juggle jobs at Starbucks, Walgreens and Bath & Body Works.
For students like Manny, homelessness is a circumstance, not an identity or “DNA makeup,” said Sol Flores, executive director of La Casa Norte.
“Their coping and resiliency skills — their bounce-back — are amazing,” she said. “There is still so much more to do, but it is such an opportunity. Not that we owe it to them; we owe it to ourselves.”
Before a federal student aid law enacted in 2009 gave financial aid administrators a specific definition of homelessness, it was difficult for colleges and universities to identify and track homeless students, said Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
In recent years, however, that once-invisible population has come into focus.
60,000 to 56,224
For the 2013-14 school year, the most recent data available, 56,224 students were classified as homeless, according to federal financial aid records. A year earlier, the number was 60,000.
Homelessness on campuses carries nearly the same definition as it does anywhere else. It generally covers students living in temporary, unstable situations, including friends’ or relatives’ homes, cars, shelters, parks, abandoned buildings, motels or bus and train stations.
One factor contributing to homelessness on campuses is low-income high school students’ “laser focus” on going to college, said Shenay Bridges, assistant dean of students and community resources at DePaul University. They obtain enough financial aid to cover tuition, books and a few related costs, but fail to consider remaining expenses, including housing, she said.
“I think people get their heads focused on one plan, and when that plan doesn’t work out, they find themselves scrambling,” said Bridges, adding that the students lack fallback financial support. “Then they’re accumulating some debt, and it snowballs.”
Young and in debt
Hoye, 20, left his mother’s home in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood at 16 after another in a series of arguments with her, he said. Since then, he has stayed at friends’ homes, shelters, a hospital, apartments, a Columbia College Chicago dormitory and on the streets.
In March, he and his older brother began living rent-free at El Rescate, an independent living center in Humboldt Park run by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
Hoye said he wants to inspire his brother and disprove “my mother’s voice in my head telling me you’re not going to be (anything).”
Still, there are challenges. Hoye, who is finishing his second year at Columbia, has about $9,000 in debt, he said. That debt was a major factor in his decision to leave school for now, said Hoye, who plans on paying down debt, finding an apartment and re-enrolling in college after he stabilizes his finances.
Until now he has managed to stay in school through federal grants, scholarships, state food aid and a job at a Dunkin’ Donuts, Hoye said.
“Ain’t nobody else out here doing anything for me and my brother,” he said. “If I don’t do it, I will be pushing a cart at the expressway, trying to look for change.”
Single points of contact
Advocates for the homeless are pressing for changes to help students like Hoye and Manny.
Federal proposals include charging in-state tuition to homeless and foster youths, giving them priority for federal work-study programs, finding housing for them during school breaks and requiring the Government Accountability Office to make recommendations on improving the educational performance of homeless students.
It also would help if every university and college created a single point of contact, a clearinghouse of services for homeless students that would make college easier to navigate, Lee said.
The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth is expanding a network of colleges that have specific programs to help homeless students, Lee said. About 350 schools in four states have single points of contact, Lee said; 150 other schools in at least nine states are receiving training in best practices to support homeless students, she added.
Road to better life
For Manny and Hoye, college has been a way to move to a more stable life with a better shot at success, even when they were unsure how they would get to college. They downplay the precariousness of their lives. To handle their hectic schedules, they say time management and an extensive knowledge of public transportation are key.
If Hoye can get back to school by paying down his debt and finding stable housing, he said he would continue studying music business and hopes to break into that field as an R&B singer and producer.
Manny said she always has enjoyed writing and is planning to major in English after she completes her studies at Truman and enrolls at a four-year institution. But she is unsure where her major will lead.
Other than that, she said, she feels pretty settled.
“I’m not looking to make a lot of money,” Manny said. “I’m really just looking to be comfortable and have a life that I’m proud of and happy with.”