Student Homelessness: The Invisible Population on Our Campuses


Drive by any school or college in America. You would think these campuses are bastions of hope for our society. Young students cart their backpacks filled with textbooks and notebooks. They peer at their smartphones while crossing the street. They fill their minds with theories and history, biographies and theorems.

You can just imagine that young man with his backpack as the next CEO of a start-up company. Or that girl with a ponytail as the next President of the United States.

But dig deeper into the life of our schools, and the cracks in a perfect educational society appear.

Behind the hopefulness and modernity of MacBook’s, lecture halls, and whizzing skateboards on campus sidewalks, is an invisible population of students that have fallen through the cracks of mainstream America.

They are our country’s student homeless population. Of course, we don’t call them homeless. Instead we say they are experiencing housing insecurity.

Whatever the label, our students are living in vehicles, motel rooms, or homeless shelters. Some sneak in the school libraries to sleep for the night, or go from one friend’s couch to another’s.

Last year, a study revealed that 46% of college students experienced housing insecurity and 36% did not have enough to eat.

The reasons for these staggering figures among our college students? The cost of tuition and student housing rent.

In California, a survey among University of California (UC) students revealed that one-fifth of its students do not have enough money for food.

At California State University (CSU), another student survey revealed that 10% of students experienced homelessness and living without permanent housing.

For those of us who operate homeless programs, we are used to having college students volunteer in our programs, not become participants of our program.

This generation should not be worried about their next meal; they should be worried about their next test. Hunger and homelessness on our university campuses are becoming low points in higher education.

Some of the current Presidential candidates are talking about free tuition, or college loan forgiveness. Such proposals are admirable, and needed. But, what about our college students experiencing housing and food insecurity? Shouldn’t they have the right to affordable housing and food?

These students worked hard in high school to earn grades high enough to enter college. They stressed over standardized and SAT tests, put in long hours of community and volunteer service, participated in extracurricular activities and wrote creative personal essays that impressed an admissions officer and won them a seat in college.

These students shouldn’t be forced to struggle to eat and have a place to sleep while earning a college degree.

Presidential proposals should not only include solutions to the student struggle of paying for tuition, but also solutions to the struggle of paying for housing.

For example – why doesn’t college tuition guarantee a dorm room and a meal plan for every enrolled student?

And then there are the secrets on the campuses of our K-12 schools. Just like their older counterparts in college, younger students are also struggling with homelessness.

Experts say that 2.5 million children in America are homeless. They too, with a parent (usually a mom), are living in vehicles, motel rooms, and shelters, while pretending they have a mainstream (housed) life while attending school.

What does a third-grade student living in a homeless shelter with his family say when a friend asks if he can go play at his house after school? How does a seventh grader do her homework when home is a car parked in a hidden alley?

Hidden behind those immaculate cut school lawns, and morning scenes of school children carrying backpacks entering the school gates, is a hidden population of homeless children struggling with the insecurity of not having a home or limited food.

Perhaps we should add to the curriculum of basic skills taught in school, such as the “3 R’s” (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Let’s add a fourth “R” for a Roof over every student’s head.

Contact your local legislators and tell them you want solutions for student homelessness.

Joel John Roberts

Joel John Roberts


Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) and PATH Ventures, homeless services and housing development agencies that work in over 140 California cities.

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