Third Place Writing – Features


Campus Life is Daily Battle for Homeless Students

Shame keeps students from seeking univ. help.
Originally published in the University of Maryland’s Diamondback student newspaper

[Editor’s note: A current homeless student who did not want his name printed for fear of embarrassment is referred to in this story as Evan.]

After hours of late-night cramming on the campus, Evan debated driving nearly an hour in the middle of the night to sleep on his brother’s spare futon. Deciding the hour of sleep wasn’t worth the half tank of gas it would take to get there, he reclined his driver’s seat, locked the doors and slept in his car. He showered at the gym in the morning, got dressed and strapped on a backpack full of books before starting a day full of classes and work.

But his day, despite the lack of sleep and upcoming exam, wouldn’t be all bad. For the next few hours, Evan could be a normal college student and avoid reality: that a typically school day for him doesn’t end by crashing in bed and flicking on the remote control – because he is homeless.

There are other students on the campus who are homeless and struggle against the rising cost of tuition and housing. The exact number is unknown, but it is not insignificant, according to local experts. Though the university offers venues to aid homeless students, these programs are not well-publicized or oft-used, leaving most students, such as Evan, to fend for themselves.

Most homeless students consider homelessness worth putting up with in order to earn a degree – the one surefire ticket out of poverty, said Andrea Morris, former director of Community Crisis Services in Hyattsville, which services homeless people in Prince George’s County. Morris, who is currently the university’s associate director for development of the College of Chemical and Life Sciences, has worked with the county’s homeless population for 15 years, personally answering the occasional calls on the help hotline from homeless students and staff.

Morris said homeless students are often overlooked on the campus because students often blend in with other students who sleep in libraries after long periods of studying or shower in the campus facilities after exercising.

“It’s easy to do on campus,” she said. “No one would ever know.”

It is impossible to keep a record of homeless students if they do not report their condition, and Morris said she does not have an exact number of the calls she received from students seeking help. The Diamondback did, however, speak to other students who don’t currently have a place of residence, and local and national experts say the numbers are growing on college campuses.

Some university administrators are not aware of the homeless issue on the campus.

“I’m not aware of any [homeless students] to be honest,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Linda Clement.

Assistant Director for Campus Recreation Services Brent Flynn said no one has reported any homeless students to CRS for about two years. Manager for Assignments and Public Inquiry for Resident Life Scott Young said his department also has not had a report of a homeless student for about two years, but the assignments office is ready to help.

Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the National Coalition for Homelessness, has spent more than 30 years working with homeless issues. He said the problem is difficult to detect on campuses across the country because students often sleep in friends’ dorm rooms, cars, laundry rooms and libraries.

“It’s really common at colleges around the country,” Stoops said.

Though a common perception is that the homeless are often drug abusers or unemployed, homelessness happens in all age groups. The classification doesn’t mean a person is necessarily living on the streets, just that he or she don’t have an adequate, regular nighttime residence, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development.

Evan’s eyes well with tears as he talks about the countless nights he has spent on friends’ couches, hopping from dormitory to dormitory at the whim of their good intentions.

“At least I have a place to stay and sleep,” Evan said. “People are nice enough to help me out. I know [other homeless students] who have gone a couple days without eating.”

Morris said the reason students she talked to are homeless is because they simply can’t afford the cost of living while paying tuition – especially because they don’t have the time to work full time while taking classes.

This is exactly the problem for Evan said.

“I just can’t afford housing,” he said. “I can’t make enough money because I have to figure out time for a job and time for class on top of all this other stuff. If you’re a full-time student, you shouldn’t have to worry about making end’s meet, but it’s different for everybody. Some people don’t have problems, but other people do.”

The fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,045, according to the Prince George’s County Department of Human Resources. The cost of room and board for a full-time undergraduate student on the campus for the Spring 2006 semester is about $4,000.

Seeking help can also be discouraging for students, Stoops said.

“At 18, 19, it can become a scary experience to go to a shelter where there’s 200 men of all ages, personalities and mental health issues,” Stoops said. “Young adults tend to avoid the shelter system because its not within their realm of experience.”

Because college students are usually over the age of 18, they are not eligible for youth or underage shelters, he said.

Stoops added even if students decide to seek shelter, a shortage of shelter beds in the area would make finding room difficult.

The only soup kitchen in the county is Community Cafe, which only has 300 beds, Morris said.

Evan said people often assume college students have homes because the university requires them to have permanent mailing addresses. But Evan added just because a student’s mail goes somewhere doesn’t mean he or she sleeps there at night.

Clement said the university does have programs to help students experiencing homelessness, including the Faculty Staff Assistance Program, a referral and counseling service for university employees and their families at the University Health Center , and the Victims Assistance Fund, a privately funded loan program that provides emergency financial aid for students in crisis situations.

The fund, which is intended as a short-term boost and limits recipients to $500, has never been to help pay for housing, said Brooke Supple, chief of staff to the vice president of student affairs.

Although Supple said she could not disclose the total amount of money in the fund, she said it’s growing and could become substantial enough to help homeless students pay for more permanent housing in the future.

Any student experiencing homelessness could also go to the offices of Student Affairs and Financial Aid, where a staff member would try to find him or her help, Clement said.

“If someone makes me aware of someone on campus who is homeless we would try to help them,” Clement said. “I hope they would get a hold of me or others, and we would provide some assistance.”

But Evan said the people students feel comfortable confiding in aren’t university officials, but rather teaching assistants or other students who don’t want to contact authorities in respect for privacy.

“They don’t want to go to administration because it’s so personal,” he said. “I don’t think the university is aware of people not having a place to stay.”

Morris said often students – especially international students – hide the fact they are homeless for fear of losing the opportunity to study or sponsorship in addition to fear of judgment from classmates and instructors.

Evan added students are more inclined to hide the fact they are homeless because they don’t want future employers, who may have a negative impression of homeless people, to find out.

“Being public about being homeless makes people immediately ask, ‘Why are they homeless?'” Stoops said.

Morris said no one would suspect the students who called the Community Crisis hotline were homeless because they are so educated – which often contradicts societal perceptions.

Morris said she took calls from a master’s student about five years ago because he was sleeping in his car and from a maintenance worker at the CRC who discovered a homeless student showering there.

“It’s really fascinating and interesting in terms of a portrait of our society we don’t see,” she said. “It’s more common than people think.”

Tim Jansen, director of Community Crisis Services, said he thought a decrease in affordable housing was responsible for the rise in homelessness among college students.

“I think we need to tackle the housing prices so people who are working can afford housing,” he said. “People going to school shouldn’t have to be homeless.”

Despite the growing problem with college student homelessness, Evan remains optimistic. He said he’ll continue to look for a cheap place, “probably in a really bad place to stay.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep helping his friends with the dishes, trash and mowing the lawn so he won’t wear out his welcome at their places, despite the fact that they continue to offer their help. Through it all, Evan said he’ll keep on “doing his own thing.”

“When I go to sleep at night, I’m so grateful and thankful for being able to take care of my basic necessities because I could be in such a worse situation than I am now. I guess I have a fixed place, but it’s just three or four places to stay,” he said.