Homeless College Students, Second Article in a Series from The Chronicle of Higher Education

The second in a series from The Chronicle of Higher Education on homeless college students. I have pasted the entire article below, FYI.

Through Care and Camaraderie, a University Tries to Keep Homeless Students on Track

Through Care and Camaraderie, a University Tries to Keep Homeless Students on Track 1

Martha Hadley is one of 56 students enrolled in Florida State U.’s Unconquered Scholars program, which serves students who have been homeless, like her, or suffered other disadvantages. After seven months in a structured residential program, she says, “I feel that now I’m completely my own person. I feel like an adult now.”

It’s Day 5 of orientation for 400 freshmen at Florida State University, and Anna Benbrook, the college’s sexual-health educator, is demonstrating a dental dam. “It’s just like a little tablecloth,” she says, unfolding the blue latex rectangle and holding it to her mouth. “You put it down, and you eat.”

The roomful of students giggles, then erupts. Martha Hadley, a petite blond sitting in the front row, shushes them, not for the first time.

It’s not that Ms. Hadley, a self-described “goofball” who rides a longboard around campus, doesn’t have a sense of humor. She’s just a little more serious about college than the average freshman.

“I get frustrated because I appreciate it,” she explains, digging into a bowl of pasta and a panini later at lunch. To Ms. Hadley, a homeless student who once spent a night on a Tampa park bench, everything at college is a new opportunity, and she doesn’t want to miss any of it.

Ms. Hadley, 18, is one of 56 students enrolled in the university’s Unconquered Scholars program, which serves students who have experienced homelessness or foster care, been wards of the court, or been raised by relatives other than their parents. Those students’ backgrounds put them at greater risk of dropping out, so the program, which was created in 2012, provides academic, social, and emotional support to keep them on track.

For the next six weeks, Ms. Hadley would take summer classes with other students who were admitted to Florida State through its Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, known as CARE, for low-income and first-generation students. After that, she would meet every two weeks with her smaller Unconquered Scholars group to talk through her challenges.

Targeted programs like this are rare on college campuses. But they’re catching on as policy makers and administrators become more attuned to the challenges facing homeless students. In the past four years, 16 states have created networks to help homeless youth make the leap from high school to college.

From Monday: Tens of thousands of students qualify as “unaccompanied homeless youth,” yet many colleges do little to help them. The students’ message: Don’t pity us. Improve your policies instead.

Meanwhile, the number of colleges offering food banks and pantries is increasing. In 2007, only one college, Michigan State University, had a food bank; today, the College and University Food Bank Alliance has more than 200 members.

And a few colleges, like Florida State, are going much further, offering comprehensive support for homeless students. While such programs are still in their infancy, the early results are encouraging. Students who have enrolled in the Unconquered Scholars program have a 95.5 percent retention rate and an average GPA of almost 3.0.

Lisa Jackson, the program’s coordinator, says it gives students “the social capital they need to succeed.”

“Students can connect and not feel judged or shunned,” she says. “Because you can be on a campus with 41,000 students and still feel alone.”

The forces that compel colleges to create stand-alone programs and special services for homeless students vary. Florida State created Unconquered Scholars after a professor of social work asked what the college was doing for homeless and foster youth.

Other colleges have been spurred to action by a single student. In 2011, Marci Stidum, a case manager in the counseling center at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, got a call from the grounds crew. Groundskeepers had been finding one student’s belongings stashed away in the dorms, and they didn’t know what to do with the student.

Ms. Stidum’s first reaction was one of confusion. “I was like, Homelessness, huh? It didn’t register,” she recalls. “She was my ground zero.”

The student didn’t want to go to a shelter, so Ms. Stidum made temporary arrangements for her to sleep on a campus bench, telling campus police not to arrest her. Recognizing “this was not a one-time scenario,” she called colleagues at other universities to see how they were helping homeless students. When she asked about particular services, “they kept saying, ‘we need that’ on their own campuses, she recalls.

Ms. Stidum decided her college “needed something official,” so she created a name — Campus Awareness, Resource and Empowerment Center, also abbreviated as CARE — and a website, and sought administrators’ blessing. They offered to help with fund raising but did not provide any institutional support.

A couple of years later, CARE has raised between $30,000 and $40,000 dollars from foundations and donations from staff and members of the community. During the last academic year, the program provided more than $14,000 in financial support to students through housing, meal plans, gas and grocery cards, and bus passes. It also arranged housing or prevented eviction for 11 students and distributed over 5,000 pounds of food through the university pantry, which it now runs.

The program has also created partnerships with a community organization that boards students’ pets and a consignment shop where students can choose their own clothes. “It’s empowering to have choice,” Ms. Stidum says, “because with poverty, a lot of time people are dictating to you.”

At the University of Massachusetts at Boston, an urban, commuter campus, officials in the Office of Urban and Off-Campus Support Services connect students with services both on campus and off — including academic advising and counseling, child care, shelters, and food stamps. The college also runs a food pantry, which has around 100 visits each semester.

Shirley Fan-Chan, the office’s director, sees her role as a connector and translator. It’s her responsibility to “make sure students are getting whatever information they need” about services, and also to educate faculty and students about the realities of the homeless.

“Part of my job is to raise awareness on campus,” she said. “A lot of people think they are lazy, and want a free handout. This population is being misunderstood.”

Most of the 16 state networks — which bring together officials from primary and secondary schools, higher education, shelters, community agencies, and college-access programs — are just getting off the ground.

State agencies typically take the lead, sometimes in partnership with a college; occasionally the networks are led by individual colleges.

While some of the networks are focused on raising awareness about homelessness, a few provide direct aid to homeless students. Colorado, the first state to create a network, in 2008, awards gift cards to students to purchase necessities that aren’t covered by federal aid, like student-identification cards and extra-long bed sheets.

But the state’s biggest contribution to homeless education has been the SPOC — short for “single point of contact.” SPOCs are individuals who can be found in admissions, financial-aid, student-services, or other offices. They help homeless students navigate the complexities of college life, walking them through what can often be an intimidating process. Following Colorado’s lead, four states now require at least some of their colleges to have a single point of contact. Advocates for homeless students are asking Congress to require all colleges to have one.

In the meantime, the yeoman’s work of helping homeless college students is being done by college access organizations like On Point for College, which operates primarily in upstate New York. During the first two weeks of every semester, On Point volunteers meet with low-income and homeless students across the state to make sure they have their books and food and are adjusting to campus life. The volunteers continue to check in with students as they progress, and sometimes stand in for their parents at graduation.

The program helps students cover expenses as varied as housing deposits, winter coats, and root canals. It finds gap housing for students during breaks and picks them up from campus when they don’t have a ride. Last year, On Point’s 160 volunteers drove 190,000 miles bringing students to and from 78 colleges across New York.

But volunteers can’t be on campus at all times, so Ginny Donohue, executive director, works to identify “campus angels” whom students can contact if they run into trouble. Ms. Donohue reckons that half of the students who would otherwise drop out remain in college “because of the kindness of somebody on campus.”

At Florida State University, the “campus angel” would have to be Ms. Jackson, a social worker who knows what it’s like to bounce around from home to home. A first-generation student, she was raised off and on by her grandparents while her young mother got her own life together.

Ms. Jackson’s office in the Thagard Student Health Center is meant to be a welcoming, safe space. The walls are strung with pictures from past Unconquered Scholars outings and foam letters spelling out the word “unconquered.” During difficult conversations, some students will take the letters down and color them, as a distraction, she said.

On one wall, there’s a bookcase lined with boxes of granola bars, Pop-Tarts, Slim Jims, peanuts, and potato chips — sustenance for students “who are hungry and don’t want to admit it.” She doesn’t tell students why it’s there because she doesn’t want them to feel any shame. To them, it’s just “Ms. Lisa’s snack shelf.”

In a few weeks, she’ll start meeting with Ms. Hadley and the other new Scholars individually and as a group — “so they can start forming a strong network right away.” Already she has helped some students locate immunization records and figure out financial aid.

For now, though, the focus is on acclimating to college life. During orientation, CARE students take a series of workshops with titles like “Conquering College Successfully,” “A Whole New World,” and “The Importance of Involvement.” They learn the differences between high school and college, the hundreds of groups they can join (“from cat clubs to nudist organizations”), and, as Ms. Benbook demonstrated, how to have healthy intimate relationships.

At each session, Ms. Hadley sits at the front of the class, wearing small, wire-frame glasses, a nose ring that ends in arrow points, a fishnet choker, black Converse sneakers, and a black Seminoles shirt she bought “because it was the cheapest item in the store.” When the instructor asks a question, Ms. Hadley’s hand shoots up every time. She gets excited when one instructor suggests that the students “go to Starbucks, get a chai-tea latte, and read for an hour” as a way to escape dorm-room distractions.

“I love being that sophisticated person in Starbucks, studying my ass off,” she says, sitting cross-legged, her knees bouncing up and down.

Ms. Hadley left home for good last year after months of “weekly running away and getting kicked out” by her father. “It was like a nuclear reaction with him,” she says. “As soon as he goes off, I go off.”

Compared with leaving home for transitional housing, she says, starting college hasn’t been “that scary.” After seven months in a structured residential program, she says she feels “more in control, because I’m the one doing it.”

“Even though I had grown independent, I feel that now I’m completely my own person,” she said. “I feel like an adult now.”

Later that night, at a mixer for students interested in joining Unconquered Scholars, Ms. Jackson circulates a sign-up sheet for students who need gap housing and tells them about the biweekly grocery runs. Karen L. Laughlin, dean of undergraduate studies, volunteers to be “surrogate parent for anybody who wants me on Parents’ Weekend.”

As the event ends, Brittany Gardener, student president of the program’s board, reminds the freshmen that they have the strength to overcome any challenge college presents.

“You’re here, and that means you went through something and you made it through,” she tells them. “Look at this as a blessing most students don’t have. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be successful, because we have so many people standing behind us and rooting for us.”

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