Homeless and Hungry in College: Students Find On-Campus Support to Help with Basic Needs

Talk of skyrocketing tuition and exorbitant student loan debt have dominated higher education news in recent years, but what is less often discussed is the impact these factors have on students while they are enrolled. A 2015 survey of more than 33,000 community college students revealed that half of all respondents faced housing insecurity — with nearly 14 percent being homeless — and 67 percent experienced food insecurity, meaning they were struggling to afford housing and food.

The Hungry and Homeless in College survey — released in March by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, an organization that conducts research to improve equitable outcomes in higher education — focused solely on community colleges, as these institutions attract larger numbers of nontraditional students. While food and housing insecurity are more prevalent among two-year, low-income students, as well as people of color, college students in general are more vulnerable to these problems, says Jed Richardson, PhD, acting director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and co-author of the report.

“We have people who are spending a lot of their time doing something that’s not earning money; they’re going to school, and that’s a great thing. Our economy needs these people to have training. But while they’re getting that training, they’re not making money, and that makes it difficult to pay for basic needs,” says Richardson. “If they are working, they’re working lower-wage jobs — on top of which, they have the extra expense of tuition.”

Additionally, the rising cost of college and the increasing number of nontraditional students enrolling means that schools are increasingly experiencing student populations with unique needs.

“All of today’s college students face far more serious financial challenges than in previous generations. But at the same time that college costs have risen, the student body has expanded to include a more diverse range of people,” says James Dubick, director of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger (NSCAH), adding that increased access to college has, in itself, been a positive change for individuals from underrepresented groups. “A college degree is more important to career success than ever before, and colleges now serve far more than the privileged middle- and upper-class students who have historically attended.”

According to Hunger on Campus, a 2016 report released by NSCAH in collaboration with several other organizations, roughly 74 percent of today’s college students are nontraditional. This means they fit one of six criteria, Dubick says: “They attend college part-time, are employed full-time, are financially independent, must provide for dependents, are a single parent, or do not have a high school diploma.” Additionally, he says that “nearly 28 percent of students are considered highly nontraditional, meaning they fit four or more of those criteria.”

To help cover the cost of college, many of these students work while enrolled — although only 18 percent report being able to cover all of their education expenses with their income — and 41 percent rely on loans to pay tuition and fees. “The result is that a surprising number of students live at or near the poverty level,” according to Hunger on Campus. “The national poverty rate in 2011 was 15.2 percent, but for students who were not living with relatives or on campus, the poverty rate was nearly 52 percent.”

At a time when a higher education has become crucial for future employment, addressing food and housing insecurity among this population serves to benefit not just the students themselves, but all of society. “It is a national imperative that we have a skilled workforce and that people in this country are able to be both economically stable and have the opportunity to be economically mobile,” says Clare Cady, co-founder and co-director of the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA). “College education is critical to that, so it is important for us to address these issues for students so that they can stay in school and graduate.”

Many colleges and universities, recognizing both the immediate and long-term effects of hunger and homelessness on a student’s ability to succeed, have taken a comprehensive approach to overcoming these obstacles.

Shema Hanebutte

Tacoma Community College
At Tacoma Community College (TCC) in Washington, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs guides the school’s approach to student support, says Shema Hanebutte, dean of counseling, advising, access, and career services.

“We had anecdotal information from students that they were having problems,” she says. “They were telling us, ‘I’m sleeping in my car,’ ‘It’s hard for me to get to class,’ ‘It’s hard for me to focus.’”

To provide housing stability to individuals who are homeless and housing-insecure, the university launched the TCC Housing Assistance Program in partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) in 2013. Low-income students who meet federal income eligibility requirements established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and who are homeless or housing-insecure qualify for the program, which provides vouchers to help cover the cost of rent. With an open application process in both the fall and spring, TCC maintains a waitlist of eligible students.

“We build a waitlist because … we only have 25 vouchers. So we do a lottery because we want to make sure we’re equitable in how we administer the vouchers. Students who are actively homeless get first priority,” Hanebutte says. “If someone graduates or doesn’t maintain eligibility, that opens up a [slot].”

To remain eligible for the program, students must be enrolled full time (12-plus credit hours) and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA; however, Hanebutte says she always gives students a “quarter of grace” should they fall below these standards.

“Once a student’s number comes up on the waitlist and they’re still eligible for a voucher, we vet their package, we get all of their materials updated, and then we send everything over to THA,” she says. “At that point, they are assigned to a housing manager, have an orientation, and receive information about where they can do their housing search. They are then given three months to … use their voucher, but they can always get an extension.”

Students can use their voucher “anywhere that a landlord will accept Section 8” in Tacoma and the surrounding area, says Hanebutte. Although it will never be enough to cover the full cost of rent, the amount is based on the number of people in the household. On a monthly basis, a family of one receives $443; for a household of two, three, or four, the amount is $571, $831, and $1,006, respectively. THA has also provided additional funding to help cover rental deposits.

In addition to financial assistance, students in the program are assigned a completion coach by TCC who provides case management and ensures they have the resources they need to complete their degree. “They provide information about other workshops we offer based on a student’s individual needs,” Hanebutte says. “For example, if one of my completion coaches is working with a female student [who is] struggling with domestic violence, he or she is patching information through to her about upcoming workshops about domestic violence or empowerment, as well as sharing other resources.”

Hanebutte’s office also offers students a variety of additional support services focused on retention, including six mental health counselors, transportation services, and an emergency grant. “That’s a fund that we have available that can help students with books, utility assistance, … and also if they have a challenge making rent,” Hanebutte says. “Because we try to make sure that we’re not creating more barriers, we have a pretty short application that students must fill out. It takes about three minutes, and we generally have a 24-hour turnaround on those.”

She also has two other projects in the works: a transportation initiative in which TCC would provide either quarterly bus passes to students or a subsidy for gas and a partnership with a local mobile food bank. But, now in its third pilot year, the TCC Housing Assistance Program has shown the most promise thus far.

Since January 2014, Hanebutte says 201 students have qualified for the voucher, 47 have received it, six have graduated, and 15 were removed from the program for not maintaining eligibility. But perhaps the most telling number is the dropout rate for students who never received the voucher. “Of the other 154 students who [qualified] and did not get the voucher, only 16 percent remained enrolled at TCC,” she says.

Hanebutte used this data point in her argument to the administration for expansion of the program. If approved by THA this summer, the number of vouchers will increase to 150 — 25 of which will be designated for individuals who have been touched by the criminal justice system. She is also in discussions with the University of Washington (UW) Tacoma to make the vouchers portable so that graduates of TCC who want to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree at UW can use them there.

“It’s really exciting because we had this small thing that started, this tiny kernel, and now it feels like it’s … growing and blossoming,” says Hanebutte.

In addition to a commitment by the administration to supporting students affected by food and housing insecurity, she attributes the success of the program to collaboration. “This project is a testament to the power of partnership, the idea of people having [common] goals and being able to come together,” Hanebutte says. “We can’t do the work in silos because none of us have the resources to do this by ourselves. It’s not easy, but you have to have people at the table who are committed and willing to think outside of the box.”

Nicole Hindes

Oregon State University
Nicole Hindes, assistant director of the Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) at Oregon State University (OSU), is no stranger to the power of collaboration. As a one-person staff, she oversees all of the center’s efforts to assist and meet the unique needs of OSU’s low-income, homeless, and food- and housing-insecure students. These efforts include resources such as a food pantry, community garden, emergency housing, food subsidy programs, facilities, and education. To do so, Hindes works with divisions and groups across campus.

Nonperishable and canned foods in OSU’s on-campus pantry

“One of the things we learned early on and have continued to rely on is partnerships, both externally and internally,” says Hindes. “Our food pantry is a partnership with our local FoodShare, which means we’re part of a larger network, so we can buy food for pennies on the dollar. Our garden is overseen by a student club that is part of the sustainability group, and they manage what we plant. So partnerships have been really huge for us and have [allowed] us be the most efficient at helping students.”

According to Hindes, 40 percent of OSU’s student population is struggling to make ends meet; specifically, she says they have trouble affording rent, textbooks, and food. To these students’ benefit, OSU is consistently seen as a leader in providing support of this kind.

Previously operating piecemeal out of several buildings scattered across campus, HSRC now has its own building from which it operates all of its programs and services, allowing it to expand its reach. “Now we’re a real center. We have lockers where students, especially those who are homeless, can leave their [personal items], we have a shower, we have laundry facilities, and we also have a commercial kitchen, so we’re able to host cooking classes, and students can come and prepare meals for themselves if they don’t have access to a kitchen,” says Hindes. “We [are] one stop with many of these things under one roof, and we can help students more immediately and grow our services in the direction that we want.”

Richardson at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab says this centralized approach to support is critical for not creating additional barriers for students who need help. “What I hear advocated for most often is a single point of contact — one person or one office where students can go to discuss all of these needs: food, housing, transportation, child care,” he says. “This is a really effective model for not having your students run all over campus trying to access services, which is very difficult and time-consuming.”

HSRC’s food pantry is another example of how OSU tries to diminish barriers to services for those in need. Although the pantry operates based on U.S. Department of Agriculture income guidelines, Hindes says she doesn’t require proof.

“We ask anyone who comes by to get food to sign a form that attests that they meet the published income guidelines, which I think is $1,800 a month for a family of one,” she explains, adding that the majority of college students meet this threshold. “But we don’t ask for verification, we don’t ask for documentation; we try to keep a low barrier to entry.”

Furthermore, the food pantry is open to all who need it — students, faculty, staff, administrators, and members of the local community — and Hindes says she sees a mix of people come through the door. Operating “shopping style,” it allows people to select food twice a month based on the size of their family. In addition to traditional canned goods and nonperishables, visitors to HSRC’s food bank also have access to fresher, healthier options.

OSU’s on-campus community garden

“We are lucky to be located in Oregon where we have access to some great local farmers,” says Hindes. Additionally, HSRC is able to offer hyper-local produce via OSU’s community garden. “One office on campus specializes in sustainability, so they oversee the garden. Another office oversees volunteers and service-learning, so that helps with the manpower. And we help with the distribution. Our community really understands that access to fresh and healthy vegetables is best for people in the long term.”

Another service, specific to students, is OSU’s Mealbux program, which helps them pay for several on-campus meals each week using their ID cards. The application is available online via HSRC’s website during the first week of each term. “[The amount] varies based on how many people apply and qualify and what our budget is,” says Hindes. “In the past, it has been as low as $40 to $60 each. But this last term, it was closer to $150 to $200 each.”

Access to Services
Hindes says the expansion of OSU’s food- and housing-insecurity services has revealed great need in the campus community; 20 students in a given year seek housing assistance, 200 are served each month through the food pantry, and 800 per term apply for Mealbux. In addition to being low-income, she says the majority of the students seeking these services are first-generation. Although these may seem like high numbers to some, Hindes says she knows there are even more in need who don’t seek help.

Richardson believes at many schools, this situation is often due to students either not being aware of available services or not connecting with outreach efforts.

“We have learned that when we advertise by saying, ‘Hey, are you hungry?’ or we set up a table [to showcase] what we do, students are not receptive to that information,” Hindes explains. “They don’t identify as being hungry. They don’t identify [these services as something] they need. And classism has almost prevented people from being able to hear and receive that information meaningfully.”

Coming up with creative ways to reach students and “reduce the stigma associated with receiving such services” is key to serving a larger number of people, Richardson says. At OSU, Hindes says she has found an approach that works best.

“What we’ve learned is most effective is relying on referrals and word of mouth,” says Hindes. “We have a great partnership with the financial aid office, student health services, counseling services, and other places where students who might be seeking help show up, and those offices refer students our way.”

While she thinks that HSRC is lucky to be funded by student fees — students decided to tax themselves to pay for the robust services offered by the center — Hindes says the university’s current approach, while helpful, is only a “Band-Aid.” In the future, she hopes to develop a longer-term strategy to not just address but solve these issues. “My wish is that we would have supportive staff members who are doing case management to help people stabilize rather than having an intervention here and an intervention there,” she says, “helping students move through to a more stable position so that they’re not consistently in crisis and can focus on academics.”

As more and more colleges and universities have opened their eyes to the issues of hunger and homelessness on their campuses, support has increased, with hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions now offering food banks and other critical services. However, Richardson believes that to truly resolve these problems in the long term takes the work of many constituents. “This is one of those things that colleges need to participate in and community practitioners need to participate in,” he says, “… but it’s also something that needs to be addressed through state and federal policy.”

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab and NSCAH both advocate for policy changes — simplifying the FAFSA application process, expanding SNAP eligibility for college students, fixing the financial aid application process for homeless students, reinstituting year-round Pell Grants, and more — to improve struggling students’ ability to succeed academically and professionally. For Richardson, it all comes down to equity for all, regardless of a person’s financial or housing situation.

“We don’t want family income to be the primary determinant of how successful someone can be in college. We want that to be based on a student’s skills, their motivation, and what they have to offer,” he says. “It’s not good for anybody if someone has talent that is wasted because they can’t access college.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.