Tens of Thousands of College Students Have Nowhere to Sleep

Last year at least 56,000 college students identified as homeless

Sen. Patty Murray recently introduced a bill designed to help homeless youth and children in the foster care system gain access to higher education. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

LaTia Daniels started at Kennesaw State University as a walk-on to the school's track and field team, earning an athletic scholarship on top of her federal financial aid. When she quit the team to focus more on her studies, and that athletic scholarship disappeared, she compensated by getting a job through a temp agency. That arrangement worked fine until her final semester, this fall, when she needed an internship to meet her graduation requirements. She had to quit her job to make time for the internship, but it was unpaid. Saving on rent by moving to her father's house, plus taking out additional student loans, helped at first, but eventually the long commute and family discord made the situation untenable. Just months before graduation, Daniels found herself without a place to sleep.

Last year, more than 56,000 students identified as homeless on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. But the real number of homeless students is almost certainly higher: That number excludes those who cannot identify as homeless because they lack sufficient proof, such as verification from a shelter. It also does not include the unknown number of college students who intermittently experience housing insecurity but handle it on their own by couch surfing with friends or sleeping in their car or campus library, never telling a university official.

On November 10, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington introduced legislation aiming to increase the resources available to those housing-insecure college students and ease the barriers to financial aid. The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2015 is meant to help homeless youth and children in the foster care system gain access to higher education. Among other things, it asks colleges to improve outreach to high school students who fit those descriptions and calls for streamlining the FAFSA form to make it easier to verify homelessness, and to clarify that homeless or unaccompanied youth under age 24 are considered independents, allowing them easier access to financial aid. 

"For so many students, higher education can be a ticket to the middle class," Sen. Murray said in a statement to Rolling Stone, "but students struggling with homelessness and students in foster care face several unique barriers that effectively shut that door of opportunity."

Assisting students with learning about and accessing resources can be essential. "I didn't know anything about financial aid. I didn't know anything about those resources that are available to you if you are homeless or in foster care," says Dominique Vaughn, a KSU freshman who became homeless in her last year of high school and applied for financial aid as an independent, with the help of a homelessness liaison in her school district in Barrow County, Georgia. "I think that it needs to be exposed, that it's not just, ‘Oh, there are people who have [fallen] on hard times, people who have lost their jobs.' It happens to teenagers, little kids, all the time."

Helping homeless and foster youth get into college and receive financial aid is a vital component of expanding access to higher education, but it is only one of many. Once in college, students face an incredible financial burden, made particularly acute if they lack support from their families. Public university tuition has almost quadrupled over the past 35 years, and average student loan debt has increased from $18,550 in 2004 to $28,950 in 2014, meaning that students face this burden both during school and for decades after.

These rising costs have a tangible impact on students' lives and their ability to meet their basic needs, let alone succeed in classes. In turn, universities and advocacy organization are having to respond to the ever-evolving reality of the college experience. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, or NAEHCY, which worked with Murray to develop her bill, originally focused only on K-12 education but eventually started noticing the barriers confronting homeless youth once in college. In 2012, it created the Higher Education Helpline, where both students and university employees can call in with problems related to homelessness. "They may already be a student on a college campus, just saying, ‘I'm on my campus. I'm starving right now. I haven't eaten in three days,' or, ‘I don't know where I'm going to go for the winter break,' or even, ‘My college doesn't really have a culture that's accepting of homeless students that are struggling,'" says Cyekeia Lee, the group's director of higher education initiatives. 

Murray's legislation attempts to solve one of those problems: It asks that universities have housing available during school breaks, as opposed to only during the semester.

According to Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach's School of Social Work who is researching housing insecurity in her university system, there is no norm when it comes to how students end up homeless. "If I emancipate or age out of foster care, I am more likely to be homeless. That exists, but not all students who are homeless have had foster care experience," she says. "We've got an increase in students who have limited economic stability. Our students are working, part-time and full-time, and they're supporting themselves and they're helping their families. A lot of students are just living paycheck-to-paycheck and if something happens, if some emergency happens, they can end up homeless."

Student poverty stretches beyond housing insecurity. For financially strained students, confronting the question of where their next meal will come from proves just as stressful as that of where they will sleep tomorrow night. This worry preoccupies traditional undergraduates who matriculate directly after high school, but it weighs especially heavily on the minds of nontraditional students, who are generally defined as students over the age of 24 with jobs or families to tend to while enrolled in school. In response, food banks have popped up on campuses across the country. According to the Michigan State University Food Bank, which was the first of its kind in the US, campus food banks numbered 121 in 2014 — up from four in 2008. The national College and University Food Bank Alliance now has more than 240 member institutions.

Even at Ivy League universities with multibillion-dollar endowments, students struggle to afford enough food. This fall, two Columbia University sophomores created Swipes, a smartphone app that lets students give and receive meals from their meal plans. According to co-founder Helson Taveras, Swipes has been downloaded over 900 times since its September launch. "Some students actually use it, essentially, for almost every meal, so there's a core group of students who really are dependent on this working," he says.

Creating new or expanded resources for housing and food insecure students can temporarily help alleviate their financial burden, but the repercussions of hunger and homelessness endure. Even once Daniels and Vaughn found housing, they retained their sense of instability. "I would definitely say that the fear lingers.," says Vaughn. "I wouldn't say that I feel 150 percent certain that I won't be in that predicament again."