By Morgan Weber, Yadira Maldonado, and Rashida Crutchfield, Ph.D.
Higher education in the United States is a critical avenue for social and economic mobility. College and university degrees continue to be essential as the wage gap between individuals with and without a degree continues to widen. While beneficial in the long run, the trajectory towards this goal can be tumultuous. As the price of college attendance and cost of living increases in many parts of the country, some students are unable to support themselves and are often forced to cut costs on basic needs such as food and housing. The issue of homelessness for college and university students has emerged as a pressing across the country.
As a part of our research in basic needs insecurity in higher education, we’ve spoken to hundreds of students who experience homelessness. For some, student homelessness may include street living, sleeping in their cars, or living in spaces not meant for human habitation. For many, homelessness is never having a consistent place to stay. Students “couch surf,” or move from location to location, relying on temporary stays with friends, family members, or hotels where they can’t stay long term. Pauline, who lived in a storage unit for most of the academic year, described her experience saying, “I’m like constantly stressed out. Like, where am I going to live next month? How am I going to stay here until I need to graduate. Like, am I gonna’ have a place to live when I find a job, like, I don’t know.”
In 2019, a national survey found that 46% of students experienced housing insecurity and 17% had reported homelessness. Research conducted in California found that 5% of University of California (UC) students, 10% of California State University (CSU) students, and 20% at California Community Colleges (CC) students experience homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problem for these students. The ongoing instability and fear of homelessness is traumatic, and the pandemic, for so many students, deepens the financial and person strain. For many experiencing food and housing insecurity, their college campus served as an anchor to access resources and find support. Students utilized their campuses as a source for safe housing, food, technology, support services, and an environment to foster social connections. Statewide lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have forced campus closures, preventing students from accessing these crucial resources. Some schools have extended these precautions until the middle of next year. For instance, as of September 10th, 2020, the California State University (CSU) system announced that it would continue to primarily hold virtual learning until June 2021.
Without access to basic needs or the ability to be highly mobility, students who experience homelessness may not be able to use the resources of support they once had. Many lost jobs that were keeping them just afloat enough to make it. Lucy and her children had found stable housing, but after layoffs, had very few choices. She said, “Luckily, we have a van, we can live in that van if that’s what it is.” Students who are highly mobile often do not have a safe space to “shelter in place”. They can be forced to make very difficult choices, risking living in places they may not feel safe or spend more time exposed to open environments which may lead to COVID-19 exposure, negative experiences with police, and food insecurity. Some steps have been taken to better support students experiencing homelessness.
Campuses and communities can still support students who face homelessness. California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) offered and extensive Basic Needs Program prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. This included a case management approach, allowing students to tell their story only once and referring them to appropriate programs, services and resources like emergency grants, Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) application assistance, emergency housing and, most recently, access to a Rapid ReHousing program that supports long term housing support. The campus also had open library hours, on-campus employment, use of the gym showers and lockers, after-hours study hall, counseling services, and a food pantry. The Basic Needs Program is still responding to students and application for this support have skyrocket.
However, many programs are saturated or limited given the amount of current need, and the quick shifts to primarily off-campus learning to ensure the safety of students does not always take into account what students in the greatest need might be living. Sam had been living in his car prior to COVID but gained emergency housing on his campus. When the closures hit and campus housing did not account for what that meant for him, he suffered. He said, “Then COVID happened here and then I had to worry about all over again of like, oh my God.” Sam fought to stay on campus, but systems must be put in place to avoid retraumatizing students.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the availability and access to resources on college campuses has decreased; however, students persist in their efforts to earn degrees. In fact, though some campuses are seeing worrisome decreases in matriculation rates, many campus are still seeing surges in online enrollment. Many students are aware that, without college and with limits on available employment, their outlook is dependent on the long-term investment in education despite persistent burdens of getting their basic needs met.
Students experiencing homelessness have had to quickly adapt and research new ways to meet the needs once provided by campus resources. This could force some students to choose between using their savings or financial aid on their basic needs or their academics. Many work or continue to work in employment that is low paying, but high risk for contracting COVID like the food industry. Communities and campuses have opportunities to address these issues. Offer available resources to students and communicate with care and concern. Consider hosting students experiencing homelessness in recently vacated housing units. Bridge links between students and off-campus resources and invest in case management models for referrals to resources on- and off-campus. Advocate for state and federal financial aid allocations for students who need it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the existing epidemic of student homelessness in higher education, which has been exacerbated due to closures and economic vulnerability. They have had to reimagine their daily lives and utilize crucial survival skills to juggle meeting their basic needs while continuing their education. It is imperative to acknowledge the resilience and dedication displayed by these students, and it is just as important for staff, educators, and administrators to continue providing aid and support in their journey for a higher education in the time of COVID-19. Campuses are strongly encouraged to consider how students experiencing homelessness and think creatively to address basic needs insecurity.
“I strongly believe that education is the greatest investment that the society can put upon itself, an investment in us, which is the future, which is the next generation, is the most rewarding for an economy, for research, for science, for literature, for culture, the arts, and for any budget cuts to be coming towards us will dramatically affect us. They affect our health, they affect our future, they affect our progression out of poverty.”
-Tom (CSU Student who experienced homelessness)
Morgan Weber is an undergraduate student activist pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. She is the founder of The Butterfly Effect, a social movement tackling basic needs awareness in higher education through outreach and community engagement.
Yadira Maldonado is a master of social work student at California State University, Long Beach. She is a research technician for the study of student basic needs for the CSU.
Dr. Rashida Crutchfield is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach. Her continued research and advocacy on basic needs for students has garnered statewide and national attention. She is a co-author of Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education: Strategies for Educational Leaders.