COVID-19 Compounds the Problems Already Threatening Homeless College Students

BY Jocelyn Figueroa

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Be the Helpers: Housed and Homeless People Are in this Fight Together

I started my first semester at Kapiolani Community College the summer I graduated from high school. I was 17 years old, working at a Yogurtland in Waikiki, Hawaii. It took nothing but a 10-minute bus ride from Waikiki to Diamond Head, a spot I sometimes hiked before my 9am English class. The sun was high, warm to my cheeks. My husband’s father had suddenly died that spring, and so he became a homeless college student, what felt like, practically overnight. Each morning we’d meet at a secluded bus stop and catch the 7:15am bus to the other side of the island.

Most nights, he didn’t sleep or eat, and so, his first meal often came from the cafeteria on campus. He slept in the library all morning, through my classes. It was only then he’d be rested enough to study and attend his afternoon courses.

He relied heavily on the showers in the gym, the food in the cafeteria, and having a safe place to rest. And I know he wasn’t, and surely isn’t, the only student whose survival is greatly secured by a community, as well as the services provided on a college campus. The reality is many homeless students access their needs on campus. Ten years later, I found myself at another “KCC”, this time it’s Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York.

At both community colleges, I was not far from the ocean. My work office overlooks Manhattan Beach and the Atlantic. And, just like before, I know a homeless student. I have heard a colleague speak of their student living in a homeless shelter. And students have slept in their car outside in the parking lot.

A Lifeline to Services

Our campuses provide homeless students with comfort and stability when stress and uncertainty is part of their daily life. College campuses are also often a lifeline to services both on and off-campus.

At Kingsborough Community College, not only do we have an on-site pantry for everyone in the college community, but we also have a student center, Single Stop, dedicated to connecting students with government benefits and other social services. Relationships built and connections made with educators, counselors, and peers make much of this possible.

Less than two years ago, I was that student who I am writing about right now. As defeating as this might all feel, there is an ounce of miraculous – in being in the right place, at the right time, to connect, be a storyteller, to be an ally and an advocate. It makes even the darkest realities seem beatable. Because we can do something about it.

College Students Face Increased Challenges

Amidst the coronavirus, I can’t help but think about the dangers our homeless or displaced students are in. I think about them when I log into my email each morning and learn about budget cuts and how money is being allocated to our most at-risk populations. And, truly, it is not just homeless students. Many of our students have unstable living conditions. Many are poor and at risk of greater disaster as they face these very sudden changes.

In the article “Homeless and hungry college students will face greater challenges because of the coronavirus” from the Philadelphia Inquirer, we learn that more than half of students at Philadelphia two-year campuses and one-third at four-year universities reported difficulty attaining adequate food and secure housing. And that was before the coronavirus upended campus life, forcing many students out of their jobs and residences.

Homeless, hungry, and poor students were already a reality on college campuses.

It is a daily occurrence for students to pop their heads into my office asking where they can get food. I’ve given enough directions to the cafeteria to learn what they’re really saying is they don’t have the money to buy food at the cafeteria. They actually need the location for the on-campus food pantry.

Temple University-based Hope Center for College, Community and Justice released a report which showed us how the pandemic “exposed the depth and breadth of vulnerability at Philadelphia colleges and universities, as many students who were forced to leave campuses had nowhere to go and no resources to create safe, alternative plans.”

And things are likely to get worse, given the millions who have lost jobs nationally, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education policy professor who leads the Hope Center. Students’ education could suffer as a result, she said.

Goldrick-Rab continues by shining some light on the fact that “nonwhites, females and those who identify as LGBTQ generally had higher rates of housing and food insecurity and homelessness, as did those who had been in foster care, served in the military or had been incarcerated. About one in five students at two-year colleges indicated they were homeless and about one in 10 at universities.”

As we look at homelessness through different lenses, or from different angles, we notice that homeless students, just as all homeless people, will suffer greatly during this global pandemic. Fortunately, (yet unfortunately) we are all learning how ineffective and fragile these systems are. We are learning how much work still needs to be done.

But, I don’t wish to end this on a sad note.

When family, friends or colleagues express stress of the situation, or worse, a feeling of hopelessness, I always try to remind them of the immense power in their hands and the even bigger love in their hearts. Together, anything is possible.

Always look for the helpers.

In times like these, always look for the helpers. The helpers are all of us – the housed, the homeless, the educator, the student. When I logged into my email this morning I saw friends sharing advice on distant learning. I saw another friend share a link to a resource brochure for transgender students. I saw a food pantry invitation for everyone in the college community. Another friend offered a couch for a displaced student.

Look for the helpers. Become the helpers.


Jocelyn Figueroa

     

Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing.

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