Homeless students struggle for stability while making the grade
Kait Vosswinkel, News Editor
May 8, 2012
Filed under News
Nadia Akrabawi’s car is overflowing with a strange array of stuff. Lamps and kitchen appliances peek from the dark corners of her trunk. Schoolbooks, notebooks, and paperwork litters the seats. Pictures and memoirs stuff the glove compartment. The Madison College student also tries to keep water, trail mix and her passport somewhere in the car at all times. That’s because this little Kia Spectra is Nadia’s home.
“I’m not on any current lease. I haven’t been for – I think – at least two years now,” Nadia explains. “I basically couch surf. I stay with my boyfriend once in a while.”
She continued, “If I absolutely have to I can go to my parents’ place in Oregon -
if I have the gas money to get there. Otherwise I can sleep in my car.”
Nadia’s situation may seem unique, but homelessness among students is a common issue. Wisconsin’s homeless student population has been skyrocketing in the past few years, especially at the K-12 level. In 2003-2004, about 5000 students were recorded as homeless in Wisconsin. During the 2010-2011 scholastic year, that number rose to 13,000.
The trouble is, K-12 students’ worries go beyond high school. When – and if – a homeless high school student graduates, they are in an extremely challenging situation when it comes to higher-level education.
Gerard Xavier, a counselor at Madison College, explains. “If they don’t have their basic needs taken care of it would be difficult – if not impossible – for them to pursue a college education. Finding your next meal, your next place to sleep, and doing Algebra at the same time doesn’t work.”
Xavier deals with, on average, between one and three homeless students per semester, and he is not alone in the counseling office. It is a growing issue, and the school is making efforts to respond.
The college tries to encourage the students to find alternative sources of help and support in situations of homelessness. Family members and friends are essential in creating a support system that could make or break the success of a college student.
Xavier shared, “I worked with a young woman who was homeless and who had been bouncing around with
friends; we helped her get connected with one of the non-profit agencies here in town that deal with younger people, 18-20 years old.”
The non-profit he mentioned is called Briarpatch, and specializes in cases of homelessness in the youth in and around Madison. “Their street outreach program is wonderful,” Xavier explained. “In this case, I was able to connect this young lady with the program, and she was very very responsive to it.”
The Salvation Army also has a number of shelters operating throughout the city, although many have 30-day limits and other criteria that discourage young students from going. Xavier added, “I know a lot of people are pretty reticent to go there because of safety issues, so that’s difficult.”
The Madison College counselor did say that individual case management really helps. Having someone regularly checking in on a student while also helping them with social aid like food stamps and subsidized housing is a really important factor in a student’s success.
“It is really is a case-by-case issue and we have to address each situation individually,” Xavier goes on. He explained that the students are incredibly diverse. The youngest he’s seen was 18 years old, and the oldest student was in their early 50’s.
Overall, student homelessness is a very volatile issue because of the extremely low chances of success among the students. “Generally speaking, the barriers are so large that if they try,” he paused before continuing. “It’s setting this up for them not to succeed.”
Akrabawi concedes to the difficulties of managing a student life while living on the road. “It really is hard because you have to go to places to get Wifi. I have to depend on friends to be home – or to want me to be there – and if they don’t and I have to get schoolwork done while nothing’s open or available,” she paused. “Sometimes you don’t want to be in public, but that’s the only place you can go to get your work done.”
“I have to live my life around other people’s schedules a lot,” she continued. “I do have keys to my best friend’s place downtown, so if I get desperate I can always go there. I’m actually in a decent situation, some people are probably a lot worse of than I am.”
Officer Tom Ambler, spent over 20 years working for the Dane County Sheriff’s office, and in 2008 came to Madison College to work with the Department of Safety. He spoke briefly of the concerns surrounding student homelessness. “The real problem that we have, nation-wide, with the breakdown of Occupy [Madison] and other things, is that they have no place to go,” Ambler said.
The Madison College Security Officer explained that as the homeless relocate to public buildings in the winter, the security personnel are obligated to pick out who’s a student and who’s not.
Recently, Ambler became acquaintances with a Madison College student who was homeless and living out of a locker at the downtown campus. “He would come to the office for help, Ambler said.
“We built a relationship. He had seven or eight backpacks of belongings in a locker,” Ambler explained. “He asked me for a couple of favors. He had so much stuff in his locker, I kept some of his personal items in our office. I offered to drive him to the doctor a few times.”
Ambler met the student after seeing him at the campus frequently. “He had a OneCard, and was taking non-credited courses, trying to get his GED,” Ambler said. “He passed his GED. We became friends just because we were wondering what his status was.”
Student homelessness is a sensitive issue, and Ambler explains the unique problems surrounding it. “It’s a tough problem, but as far as homelessness goes, it’s not quite the same. The age group is completely different. A homeless student is anywhere from 25-35. It’s a different ballgame.”
“I have to hand it to ‘em,” he said. “To apply themselves, to better themselves. It’s not easy.”
Nadia Akrabawi can attest to that fact. She is nearly finished with an Associates Degree in Meeting and Event Management, and is still desperately searching for a job. “I’ve been looking,” She said. “It’s pretty hard right now. I literally am looking for anything at this point – anything that will pay me. I think there’s just so many people looking for work.”
“It’s difficult because yeah, people look down on you if you don’t have your own place,” She explained. “But I’m kind of over it. I don’t really care what people think any more.”