I recently received an email informing me that, through a generous donation, emergency funds have finally become available for students who are experiencing a range of emergencies, including student homelessness or impending homelessness. That fact alone is devastating. As staff members and faculty of a community college in New York City – one of the wealthiest cities in the world – we must consider the increase in student homelessness.
Several, arguably, almost half, of our students at Kingsborough Community College live below the poverty line. Though devastating, it is not surprising. In fact, food insecurity is estimated to affect as much as 1 in 2 college students. Moreover, “just as many struggle with housing insecurity, and a significant number (14 percent at community colleges) are homeless.”
Invisibility is a difficult trend to overcome when we talk about ending homelessness. In regards to homelessness occurring on college campuses, one of the biggest obstacles we face is the oversight caused by the “starving college student” stereotype. This is not simply a “rite of passage”; it is a form of poverty. There is nothing “trendy” about college students living in their cars. Mobile homelessness is neither cool nor fun.
Although invisibility is going to be a thoroughly discussed topic among homelessness, I want to start by telling you a story.
My first observation of homelessness occurred when I was about 16 years old. I had classmates, in high school that lived in cars with their parents and siblings. These incidents were not obvious to me, or to anyone – not to our friends, or our teachers. I was entirely oblivious to their homelessness until told directly. And, of course, I was oblivious to the struggles their families endured because of it.
Not very long after, my now husband lost his home after the death of his father, his only parent. I had no choice but to watch my husband sleep in a public park. At this time, he was also a first semester college student at Kapiolani Community College in Hawaii. He soon began to stay awake at night, and sleep in the campus library throughout the day – with the other tired students among him. Like everyone else, he showered in the locker room, ate in the cafeteria, and went to class. He blended in. His homelessness was invisible. However, the meltdown still occurred, at the end of each night, when the campus closed, and he had to take a bus back to the park.
Then it happened again, when I was 24, during my last semester of college. This time, we bounced from one family shelter to the next in Queens and Manhattan.
I know what you are thinking – why can’t colleges provide help? It is not as if a student can succeed, nor are they any closer to graduation, when they are hungry and homeless. Unfortunately, when it comes to housing, colleges don’t quite have the right idea.
In fact, “when colleges and universities think about housing, they see dollar signs to be gained from residence halls catering to wealthy and international students, rather than opportunities to facilitate affordable living. [However], given massive state disinvestment throughout the country, it is hard to blame the public institutions. But it means that a growing number of students are being left out in the cold” – literally.
College is and can be a step out of poverty. A first-generation college student can end a cycle of poverty for a family that has suffered several generations of it. If we are to acknowledge this truth, then we must act as more than just educators, because a good education requires more than a classroom. It requires, first, all basic needs met.
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