Invisible on campus

Schools have very little data on homeless college students. This makes it difficult to help them.

Blair Emerson

After a full day of studying or working, Adrian Martinez leaves school at about 5 p.m. each night to secure a space at a local homeless shelter.

When Martinez migrated to Minnesota from New Mexico in 2004, he came from a family with a history of substance abuse. Now he’s going to Minneapolis Community and Technical College so he can be a social worker and help youth and families dealing with addictions. He has lacked stable housing for three years.

Martinez is not alone. Many low-income and homeless students face extreme barriers to accessing and achieving success in college.

But post-secondary institutions statewide, including the University of Minnesota, don’t keep data on how many students are homeless — a problem that many state and school officials say needs to be addressed if the schools are to help.

A recent upward trend in homelessness has led to an increased focus on how policymakers, school leaders and youth shelters can identify and support more homeless students.

“We could do better at training faculty and staff on how to tackle student issues,” said Amelious Whyte, the University’s senior associate vice provost for advocacy and support. “Homelessness is something we need to look at more centrally.” 

Tracking the unknown

As the number of homeless Minnesotans grows, college students aren’t immune to the problem.

A one-night study conducted by Wilder Research in October 2012 found a 6 percent increase in homeless adults, youth and children statewide compared to its 2009 report.

White people make up the biggest portion of the adult homeless population. But Wilder Research found some racial disparities in its study, including an overrepresentation of black, American Indian and Hispanic people with housing instabilities.

Martinez, who comes from an American Indian family, lived on a reservation in New Mexico that was rife with poverty.

Like many other students, Martinez relied on student loans to pay his living expenses in Minnesota. But he was evicted from his St. Paul apartment when his financial aid was put on hold, forcing him to drop out of school and find a job.

Whether Martinez’s story is an outlier or a common occurrence is unclear; data on homeless students in higher education is scarce.

“What we do understand right now, at this point, is there aren’t a lot of postsecondary institutions that actually track students who are homeless,” said Diane O’Connor, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

The little data that does exist suggests that between 3 and 5 percent of college students struggle with episodic homelessness, according to the OHE.

Homeless students face a number of challenges while pursuing postsecondary education.

They are often unaware of support available to them, including college advising and scholarships, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

The OHE held events in June and October with various institutions, shelters and organizations across the state to raise awareness of the issue.

O’Connor said the state office is creating a campaign aimed at getting institutions to start thinking about tracking homeless students, and then perhaps designing specific services for them.

The state’s plan to prevent and end homelessness was the driving force behind the events, she said.

That plan, introduced in 2013, includes two goals: to prevent and end homelessness for families with children and unaccompanied youth by 2020, and to end homelessness for veterans and for people experiencing chronic homelessness by 2015.

O’Connor, who helped draft the plan, said a group of stakeholders started to think about homeless students and youth who have aged out of foster care, are low-income and face other challenges while finding a place to live.

But building awareness is just part of the issue.

Jarrett Gupton, an assistant professor in the University’s College of Education and Human Development, researches how homeless and highly mobile youth navigate postsecondary education during what’s known as their transition years — ages 15 to 24. He also studies the support services that colleges and universities offer those students.

Gupton surveyed higher education employees across the state last year between spring and fall, measuring how aware they were of support services offered to homeless students.

The results of those surveyed showed many of those employees were unaware of the resources their schools have available for homeless students.

Most four-year schools said they don’t offer resources to those students at all, Gupton said.

Struggling to stay in school

University senior Faiza Hassan lived in campus dorms before she dropped out of school for a semester last year to find housing for her mother.

She re-enrolled for the spring 2014 semester but found herself homeless.

Hassan recalls contacting the University’s Housing and Residential Life office to say she needed a place to stay.

“I remember the housing lady told me — she was really nice, but she wasn’t exactly helpful — she told me that I could fill out an application and they would get back to me in a week or two, and I just remember thinking, ‘I still don’t know where I’m going to stay for a week or two,’” she said. “She made it seem so easy.”

Hassan said she didn’t think housing would be so hard to find. Like many students often do, she stayed with friends until she could find a place to live.

But she experienced some issues with the people she was staying with and instead spent most of her time sleeping in Coffman Union.

This problem isn’t unique to the University. Homelessness also affects students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where Martinez was enrolled before he lost his apartment.

Many people who work with the homeless population say MCTC has one of the highest rates of student homelessness in the state.

The college struggles to keep up with major housing and financial needs of many of its students, said Mary Ann Prado, an adviser there who works with homeless students.

Most of the school’s students come from urban neighborhoods or are immigrants or refugees, she said.

An informal study conducted in 2010 found that 10 percent of student respondents were homeless or in need of food.

And four years later, the need is still there, Prado said.

“We have a lot of students that have housing-related issues, financing issues, obviously mobility issues,” she said, adding rent, food and child care to the overgrown list of student burdens. “We have so many needs.”

Wilder Research found that 7 percent of homeless adults surveyed in 2012 were enrolled in higher education institutions. Of those, 78 percent were in two-year college programs, 21 percent were in four-year programs and 1 percent were graduate students.

Hassan was homeless for three months while enrolled at the University. She’s now found a job and an apartment, but she said homelessness could affect any college student.

“This could happen to anyone — housing falls through for most college students. I just feel like it’s not a reliable thing,” she said.

A network of support

Hassan managed to overcome her homelessness. But some University students who find themselves in similar situations may not know where to turn.

The University doesn’t have a specific staff member who solely works to help homeless students, said Whyte, who works in the Office for Student Affairs. The school also lacks data on how many of its students are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Whyte said not knowing how many University students could be homeless is a problem, and the school needs data to properly assess the issue.

“While I don’t have a real sense of the issue, I’m sure it is [one],” he said.

Whyte said he’d like to work with students to address income, housing and food insecurity in the next year and a half.

Possible solutions could include a University food shelf and an emergency loan program for students who need immediate financial support, Whyte said.

The student affairs office would be the school’s means of providing support to homeless students, Whyte said. But he said he would like all staff and faculty members receive training in responding to the issue.

Gupton, the assistant professor, agreed there needs to be more systematic training for dealing with homelessness. And he said it’s not an issue that the student affairs office should handle alone.

“Given the diversity of the [homeless student population], we can’t always bet they will go to one person,” he said.

At the same time, Gupton said the lack of a single point of contact at the school for homeless students means they’re passed from office to office.

Gupton said he and the University’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center are currently evaluating nine principles of effective care and outreach to homeless youth adopted by many shelters in the Twin Cities.

Stakeholders across the University want to know if they can translate those principles to training higher education professionals, he said, and what that training would look like.

Amy Kampsen directs the University’s TRIO student support services, a federally funded program for low-income students who are first-generation college students and come from underrepresented backgrounds.

Kampsen said she wants her program to work more with shelters and organizations to better connect students with services in the Twin Cities.

Her program currently includes five homeless University students, and in the past two to three years, the program has had only three or four homeless students recommended to it from other University offices.

Gupton said he would like to see a pilot model on how to train University employees by fall 2015.

“Yes, we are driven to discover — we do a lot of research, there’s teaching, there’s service,” he said, “but supporting people to make sure they can stay and benefit from the University is a big part of what a lot of us do here.

Varied financial strains

A lack of University resources to identify and track homeless students could mean the problem is bigger than it seems.

For example, some students find themselves homeless as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. A growing number of homeless youth identify as transgender, according to the Wilder research.

Garrett Hoffman, a research assistant in the University’s Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development, works with some transgender students and serves as a resource for many of them.

Hoffman said many transgender students face significant barriers to education, specifically financial ones. These monetary barriers can be even higher if the student wants to change genders through medical procedures.

When Hoffman medically transitioned genders without insurance, the procedure and hormones cost more than $30,000, he said.

These high bills are a reason some students choose to drop out while transitioning genders, he said.

“When it comes to getting an education or purchasing hormones, people oftentimes will choose hormones,” Hoffman said.

When Hoffman worked at the University of Missouri, he said he had a student named Kelly who came out as transgender to her family. The family responded by saying they would no longer pay for her education.

Kelly then had to seek financial aid and didn’t have assistance from her parents, Hoffman said. This caused her to drop out for more than a year because she couldn’t afford to go to school.

Many students, like Kelly, struggle after losing financial support from their families. For some, the end result leaves them homeless.

Congress passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act in 2007, making it easier for homeless students who lack financial support from their parents or guardians to apply for federal student financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The act expanded the definition of an “independent student” to include “unaccompanied homeless youth,” which it defines as a student who is 21 years old or younger or a student who is enrolled in high school when filling out the FAFSA.

Addressing the issue

Helping students who are homeless or low-income get into college is only part of the solution.

O’Connor, from the state Office of Higher Education, said it isn’t enough for educators and policymakers to focus solely on whether low-income students enroll in college. It’s also important to track how they fare once enrolled, she said.

“The main issue is keeping them in college until they complete, because if they don’t complete they’ve accumulated student debt, and they don’t have any additional credentials that might qualify them for jobs,” she said. “They’re actually almost in a worse place than if they hadn’t gone [to school] in the first place.”

Although the state office doesn’t have any specific plans for future events aimed at tackling student homelessness, O’Connor said she hopes stakeholders will continue the conversation and get more Minnesota lawmakers involved.

“We have an opportunity here because of the [federal and state focus],” she said, adding that it is important to get policymakers on board because they can allocate resources to address the issue.

Cathy ten Broeke, director of Minnesota’s effort to prevent and end homelessness, said the state’s plan to stop homelessness was created to establish housing stability for all Minnesotans, including college students.

“If we want our kids to succeed in school and we want to build a stronger workforce — which obviously those two things are very connected — then we need to increase the housing stability of those students,” she said.

In addition to creating more housing opportunities, ten Broeke said a crucial step to combatting the issue is educating more postsecondary institutions about homelessness.

Some students at MCTC are already working to support other students experiencing homelessness.

Martinez is the co-founder of an MCTC student group designed to connect homeless students with resources on campus.

The group, Students Against Hunger and Homelessness, gives donated food to students weekly and helps them find housing.

“It is helping us to not be so much worried about ourselves,” Martinez said.

SAHH members said they want to expand their outreach to other schools in the Twin Cities, including the University, to ensure all homeless students are aware of the resources and support services available.

As for Martinez, he’s currently looking for a job so he can afford stable housing.

He plans to re-enroll at MCTC as soon as possible so he can obtain his two-year degree and begin a professional career.