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Homeless Students: College by Day, Shelters by Night

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Deciding between a dorm room and an off-campus apartment is a tough decision for some undergraduates. After all, both have their strong points as well as their disadvantages. However, a growing group of young adults would gladly take either—homeless college students without a place to call their own.

Homeless College Students on the Rise

In addition to the traditional stresses related to classes and exams, some students have the added burden of not having a place to sleep each night. Official statistics are hard to come by because students are not required to inform colleges of their situations, but it’s believed that the number of homeless college students has risen considerably during the recession.

The reasons for homelessness vary. Some leave home after a falling out or due to abuse. Others never had parental figures in their lives and can no longer afford to pay rent while paying for college.

College students without stable housing get by in a variety of ways. In 2009, The Washington Post mentioned a brother and sister who grew up in foster homes. Both in their twenties, the siblings were college students by day yet slept in rooms with other homeless people in shelters each night. In 2010, thirty-two-year-old student Christopher Sparks slept at a Salvation Army homeless shelter, according to the Minneapolis StarTribune.

Students Sleep with Friends, In Common Areas

Other homeless college students, often younger, spend the night with various friends or sleep in common areas on campus. In 2010, NPR mentioned 22-year-old Diego Sepulveda, who would rotate between nights at the library, friends’ couches and his school’s Student Activities Center, which gave him access to a pool, locker room and showers. “I would shower, and it would give me at least some sense of being clean,” he explained.

Homelessness Increasing

According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the federal definition of homelessness used by all public schools in the United States includes children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This definition specifically includes children and youth living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, and sharing the housing of others temporarily due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons.

It’s not surprising that the number of homeless college students is on the rise. A March 2010 HUD study found that the number of rural and suburban family homelessness was up by 56 percent.

“The challenge, of course, is that in many cases these youth are not detectable,” Diana Bowman, program director of the Center for Homeless Education, told Campus Progress. “They don’t know that they fall into the technical definition of homelessness, and they may not know what services they are eligible for.”

Homeless Students Face Multiple Challenges

ParentDish explained in 2010 that UCLA had developed the Economic Crisis Response Team to try to identify financially strapped students and help keep them in school, but many homeless students find it difficult to remain in college. They cannot afford basic supplies like notebooks and backpacks, let alone pricy college textbooks.

“They are not well rested, and they are stressed out,” Mary Ann Prado, who works with homeless college students as director of resources and referrals at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, told the StarTribune. She says most do not have a place to shower or enough clothes and many are hungry. “If you haven’t eaten, how are you going to study when your stomach is growling?” she asks.

Definitely food for thought for college students who routinely call home to complain they need new cell phones or extra spending money for going out on the weekends.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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