“Alice” is moving again this week after staying with friends didn’t work out.
It’s not an unusual circumstance for college students like her, but Alice in recent years has not only couch-surfed with friends, but also slept in her car and stayed in the local women’s shelter, she says.
Being homeless adds another layer of challenges on top of the rigors of academic work at UW-Madison.
“It’s super hard,” says the 23-year-old woman, who did not want her name used for this article.
She is part of the small, but increasingly visible, population of homeless students on U.S. college campuses who find their income and financial aid don’t cover living costs while earning a diploma.
Statistics are scarce, but a federal program that lets eligible students apply for financial aid at no cost estimated there were 58,000 homeless students on college campuses nationwide in 2013, USA Today reports.
Students also are beginning to protest high college costs that threaten their ability to meet basic needs like housing and food, as dozens did last week at San Diego State University, Yahoo Finance reports.
The number of students needing assistance with food also is growing; the College and University Food Bank Alliance has grown to 46 chapters in 21 states since 2011.
Alice is pursuing a degree in the sciences and has high hopes for earning a Ph.D. some day. But for now, she is coping with uncertain housing and mental illness while trying to keep up with class requirements.
“My professors don’t know,” she says. “If I come to class and am overwhelmed, they don’t know why.”
She has found herself without a place to bathe, and swiped perfume ad flaps from magazines to rub on the scent so she wouldn’t smell in class, Alice says.
The demands of homelessness – and trying to hide it – make it hard to relate to others students’ concerns and make friends, she says.
“If I’m lucky, I sleep in the women’s shelter," she says. "It’s hard to create the image of not having any problems.”
Alice receives some assistance through the state, including FoodShare and BadgerCare, and has grants and work-study income. But she also is taking more than $5,700 in student loans this semester, she says.
“College is not affordable,” she says. “And UW-Madison has absolutely nothing for students who are homeless.”
Homeless students attending class at UW-Madison and carrying student loans are among the surprising findings of research conducted by Sara Goldrick-Rab, director and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at UW-Madison’s School of Education. The research project, featured in a cover story last week in the Capital Times, brings scientific rigor to testing the efficacy of programs meant to make college affordable for students and families.
The HOPE Lab convened a workshop at Madison College last spring on housing and food insecurity among undergraduates, where participants heard some candid stories about struggling with uncertain housing and food supply while getting through school, says Carlotta Calmese.
“They were very frank and shared from the heart about food insecurity and not wanting to tell anybody and suffering in shame,” says Calmese, associate dean of retention and student development at the technical and community college on Madison’s east side. For example, some students recounted going to meetings of clubs they had no intention of joining so they could get something to eat from the refreshments being served, she says.
The state-funded Turning Point program at Madison College serves up to 70 students, many of whom are homeless and fleeing abusive relationships, in getting and staying in school.
“Some of them are pretty much camped out at school so they have access to Wi-Fi and can get their school work done. It’s very difficult,” Calmese says.
She says her office refers many students to local food pantries. And after discovering that some were four weeks into the semester without access to textbooks, Calmese got approval to use an “early warning system” grant to buy copies of introductory course textbooks to be kept in the library.
Immigrant students can be especially hard-strapped if they are undocumented, because that makes them ineligible for federal student aid, Calmese says.
Student demographics are changing.
“When I went to college I didn’t have three kids or a mom I had to take care of, but students today do. They are doing double and triple duty,” she says. In addition, many more students at Madison College today need remedial classes before they can start work on a certificate or degree, prolonging their time in school. Madison College works to address academic deficiencies rapidly and support struggling students to complete their program, but more needs to be done, she says.
Homeless students on the UW-Madison campus are extremely rare, says Kathy Kruse, assistant dean of students. But when her office becomes aware of a student without a place to live or money to buy food, staff members make referrals.
“We always have staff members on call to meet with students and strategize with them and give them lists of community resources like shelters and food pantries,” Kruse says.
The Division of Student Life also would make a referral to the financial aid office to see if a student is receiving as much aid as possible under federal guidelines, she says.
Her office also makes short-term crisis loans of up to $500 for housing or groceries, medical or dental expenses or travel for a funeral, she says. Eighty-seven such loans were issued for the 2013-14 academic year.
Students typically are referred to apply for the loans by faculty or teaching assistants, and students who find themselves in housing or food straits also may get informal assistance of some kind from university staff they have contact with, without her office knowing about it, Kruse says.
There was an increase in applications for crisis loans to students during the financial crisis in 2008 when students' families lost jobs and assets, but that kind of financial need remains rare at UW, she says. Students who are temporarily without a place to live probably are getting help from friends who let them sleep on the couch, Kruse ventures.
As far as helping students access assistance before things are at a crisis – like workshops on how to apply for FoodShare, previously known as food stamps – Kruse says her office hasn’t offered that. The campus does not have a food pantry.
The Campus Women’s Center this week hosted a workshop on applying for FoodShare that was attended by seven students, although more than 30 had expressed interest on Facebook, says volunteer coordinator Aubrey Winkie.
The group also talked about the stigma of being on food stamps, says Winkie, a gender studies and global health major who is putting herself through school. Winkie says she was surprised to learn last year that she was eligible for FoodShare and at how much getting the assistance changed how she ate.
“People talk about living on ramen noodles as being part of the college life style, but that’s not nutritionally adequate,” she says. In high school, low-income students probably were on the federal free and reduced breakfast and lunch plan. “What resources do they have for the transition to college?”
Winkie points to research like a 2013 study at Oregon State University that found that 59 percent of students had been food insecure – with a limited or uncertain supply of nutritionally adequate food - in the previous year.
As she has talks about FoodShare on the UW-Madison campus, Winkie says she has been surprised to learn how many students are eligible.
But it’s something they may not be talking about.
“There’s this image here of college students who are well-off. And even if you’re paying for your own college – you think you need to fit into that image,” Winkie says.