University of Wisconsin-Madison student Brooke Evans was recently featured in a Glamour article for a less than glamorous reason — she spoke frankly about her six year struggle with homelessness as a student.
The article uses Evans as an example of the growing number of homeless college students across the nation. The article cited the over 59,000 applicants for federal aid who identified as homeless in 2015, as well as recent studies showing that more than 10 percent of students surveyed were struggling with homelessness in some form.
These numbers echo research from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a research project at the UW-Madison. The lab studies the topic of affordability and equitable outcomes in postsecondary education. A 2014 study from the center found that half of community college students surveyed around the nation were at risk of hunger or homelessness. A 2016 study of four-year Wisconsin campuses found that over a fourth of students reported being hungry and 4 percent were unable to pay rent.
Originally a student at UW-La Crosse, Evans transferred to UW-Madison in her sophomore year. Once there, she couch surfed and lived out of her car. When she originally sought help from UW-Madison counselors, they suggested she stop attending school until she could afford it.
“I would imagine that Brooke did meet some resistance,” UW–Madison Dean of Students Lori Berquam said in the article. “None of us knew homelessness was that much of an issue then. And also, maybe there was the school pride of ‘Madison is doing really well, and that’s not a problem on our campus.’ ”
Evans’ grades fell, and she dropped out in 2013, to be readmitted the next year. She returned with a renewed sense of purpose.
“And that’s when I decided to become an activist,” Evans said in the article.
Using a pseudonym, she wrote for the student paper about the struggles of being a homeless student. That fall, she proposed a campus food pantry. Debate on the proposal motivated her to talk publicly about her homelessness to raise support for the project and awareness of the issue. The proposal passed, and the pantry, known as The Open Seat, is now open.
The pantry is staffed by part-time student workers, paid from $3000 in student fees appropriated by the Associated Students of Madison. The pantry distributes donated food.
Kevin Helmkamp, associate dean of students at UW-Madison, said the number of students utilizing the pantry has seen steady growth since it opened earlier this year, and he expects growth to continue as more students become aware of the pantry.
"It certainly has demonstrated that it's well worth doing," he said.
The students running the pantry have been tracking what items are in demand, and are learning more as the process continues, he said.
"I think the students who started the pantry deserve a lot of credit for being very thoughtful in their approach and showing commitment to doing the job well," said Helmkamp.
Evans has also worked with the HOPE Lab to generate ideas to help low-income and struggling students. Food and shelter are priorities, but she also wants to help low-income students have more typical college experiences, for example, by offering free Badger games tickets.
“I don’t think people realize how exclusive entry into some of these spaces feels,” she said in a Capital Times article in February.
UW-Madison has several other programs to help low-income and struggling students. Last year, 3,900 UW-Madison students received Pell Grants, federal subsidy grants used to pay for college. The UW-Madison Office of Child Care and Family Resources provides financial aid for childcare for parents students. There’s also The Odyssey Project, an introduction to the humanities program for low-income adults. It aims to act as a springboard into college.
In February, UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said Chancellor Rebecca Blank has made increasing need-based aid a priority. The Dean of Students Office also grants emergency student loans, and this year hired a case manager to help connect students to available resources. FASTrack and BANNER are two university programs that distribute grants and work opportunities to low-income students to about 1,000 students a year.
“While we can and will do more, data show the successes we're already having supporting students,” McGlone said in a CapTimes article earlier this year.