When we think about the typical college experience, homelessness isn’t what pops to mind. But for an increasing number of students, that’s their reality, not keggers or dorm life. They pull all-nighters in their car, parked outside a closed Starbucks for Internet access and doing their readings by the dashboard light, or take advantage of the campus library’s late hours for a warm, safe place to nap.
In a recent survey by the University of Wisconsin, gathering data from more than 4,000 undergraduates at community colleges around the United States, they found that one in five students reported themselves as food-insecure and thirteen percent called themselves homeless. These numbers are up, rising alongside the increased costs of college.
“It’s that they’re working, and borrowing,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, the sociologist responsible for interpreting the survey’s results, “and sometimes still falling so short that they’re going without having their basic needs met.”
More and more college campuses are developing their own food assistance programs, since students often have trouble availing themselves of food stamps or similar safety nets. For a student in college with no children, most states require them to be working at least 20 hours a week to receive food stamps.
To other students and even to college administrators, it’s often an invisible problem. Homeless students go to great lengths to conceal their status, out of shame or fear. They couch surf if they can, or use the school athletic center’s shower rooms to keep appearances up. To have a place to sleep safely, they might team up with other homeless in a “hot bed” apartment—an illegal but cheap kind of room-sharing that exposes them to risk of violence or other crime.
According to Goldrick-Rab’s team, what needs to happen to help this matter is for state and federal governments to make their safety nets more available to student bodies. Currently, there’s an attitude that if you can afford school, you don’t need help, but with the current state of student debt, that just isn’t realistic.