Homeless but not hopeless

Homelessness is more common among students than you think

Mitchell Barradas, Contributor

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Most students would agree that final exams are a challenging time. But for some students, the even greater challenge is trying to prepare for finals while sleeping in a car, with limited access to WI-FI and struggling to find something to eat.

Homelessness and food insecurity amongst students is on the rise.

According to an October 2016 article in “Glamour” magazine written by Liz Brody, a former homeless student who attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now a journalist and editor at “ Glamour,” 59,000 applicants for federal aid identified as homeless in 2015 – up from previous reports.

Researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab who are studying this question have learned that a growing number of low-income students experience food and housing insecurity, even when students work and receive financial aid.

In her report, “Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates,” UW-Madison’s Sara Goldrick-Rab notes that more community-college students are homeless or lack food than before. Overall, about 33,000 students across 70 community colleges in 24 U.S. states are struggling with homelessness. Of these students, around two-thirds have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods.

For some students, like Brandy T. (who asked that her last name not be used), a former Madison College student, homelessness was her reality even before college. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 1,414 students in the Madison School District identified as homeless over the course of the 2014-15 school year; 5.2% of the student body.

When Brandy’s family was struggling to make ends meet, she recalls, “My mother would stop at a gas station for us to get something to eat, she told us not to get anything too big. She said this because we had no way to keep it cold. My mother would go hungry to keep us three kids fed; we would have about one meal a day.”

She adds, “We slept a lot of the time in my mom’s car. We would park on any residential street on the North Side… At times all of us were separated, I understand the reasoning now, but at the time I felt unwanted.”

Brandy says there are many reasons a family like her’s might become homeless and some of those reasons are very complicated.

“The students in college, they could have a hard time balancing work and school, parents may be unable to or unwilling to help financially. There may not be an option to move back in with their parents.”

Brandy suggests that colleges could do more to help students who are facing homelessness be successful academically. Among her suggestions are to increase library hours to allow students access to internet and other services that they would lack on the street or when they are living in a car.

Madison College does have several programs and offers aid that support students in need. One such program is the Emergency Assistance grant. If a student experiences an unforeseen financial expense, emergency funding up to $500 may be available. An unforeseen expense is considered one that, if not resolved quickly, could lead to a student’s temporary or permanent departure from the college. Funding is only available during the fall or spring semester. To learn more visit: madisoncollege.edu/financial-challenges.

The key for students who are homeless or facing housing and food insecurity, is to be open to getting help. Some students find support through local resources such as shelters and pantries.

“There are options. It sucks now, but there are people and programs out there that can help you,” Brandy said “Don’t let your pride get in the way of succeeding, it’s not worth it.”