This month, more than a million students will head back to university campuses across the country. With projections that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, the value of university and college degrees is steadily increasing. So too is the cost. As tuition rates and on-campus housing costs increase, it is important to ensure that students can afford the costs associated with not only tuition, but also with living during the pursuit of their education.

An increasing number of students find themselves struggling to cover the many expenses of college life. After tuition fees are paid, for some, nothing remains to cover the cost of basic necessities including food and accommodation. Thus, a growing, largely unidentified, segment of the student population is experiencing homelessness. Few students enter university or college without a fixed address; many have initial support from family or financial aid sources to cover the cost of rent. But a number of factors can result in the loss of a permanent place to live. Students may find themselves in an unsafe or intolerable living situation, they may suffer the loss of a job they were dependent on for income, or the loss of financial support from family.

Hidden Homelessness

Staying at a friend’s place or sleeping in a quiet spot on campus are things most college students do at some point during their studies, and students who rely on friends for a place to stay may not even consider themselves to be homeless. Herein lies the difficulty of enumerating this population. Many of these students are among the ‘hidden homeless’ population. They are considered hidden because they don’t access homeless supports, and do not show up on standard statistics regarding homelessness. Students determined to complete their education, but without the financial means to afford rent, may find themselves couch-surfing or sleeping in campus libraries. They can often be reluctant to get help from their university out of embarrassment, and many fear the stigma and discrimination related to homelessness.

How many students experience homelessness?

As noted, it’s difficult to gather statistics on just how many students are experiencing homelessness and related problems like food insecurity. The Canadian Federation of Students has reported that student-led food banks, like the one at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, have sprung up on campuses across Canada. The federation, representing more than 500,000 members from 80 students’ unions, is calling on the federal and provincial governments to make higher learning more affordable. There is no national estimate for postsecondary student homelessness in Canada, and campus-specific statistics are not available.

In the United States, an estimate from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) suggests that there are about 58,000 homeless students on college campuses. A study of Food & Housing Insecurity among undergraduates across the U.S., found that half of all community college students are struggling with food and/or housing insecurity. 20% of respondents reporting being hungry, and 13% were experiencing homelessness. These numbers, though high, are likely an undercount since many students are reluctant to seek support. With this in mind, it is crucial for colleges and universities to create a supportive environment for homeless students.

On-campus supports

Some universities are beginning to address the needs of students in these circumstances. For example:

  • Food banks, like the example from Halifax noted earlier, are one example of an on-campus support. A study in California State University revealed in that one in ten of California State University’s 460,000 students is homeless, and a further one in five had gone hungry in the past year because they didn’t have money for food.
  • The neighbouring UCLA campus has a dedicated Economic Crisis Response Team to identify financially strapped students and help keep them in school. A student-led food closet on campus distributes donated food and small items like soap and shampoo to students in need, and is a discreet way for students to get access to food and supplies they may be unable to afford.

Although food banks are a great help to students in need, they are largely student-led and rarely funded by institutions. Problems can arise in keeping up with donations, and a more official strategy to assist financially insecure students is required.

On most campuses, there are resources and support systems in place for mental health, physical health and emotional adjustments that students face during school. These supports tend to be widely publicised on campus, often with awareness campaigns, posters and student ambassadors to help their peers to reach out and get help when they need it. Yet, in the California study mentioned previously, 79% of students reported that they did not know about on-campus services available for students experiencing housing instability or food insecurity. Homelessness support services are much less visible, despite homelessness having a significant impact on students’ wellbeing and educational attainment.

In order for colleges and universities to better support homeless students, information for these students needs to be accessible. Assigning a point-of-contact for students experiencing housing instability and homelessness can help the flow of information. This point of contact, either a staff member, student group or campus location, should be communicated to students in the same way that other campus supports and services are.  Not only does this make students more inclined to seek advice when they need it, it can also help reduce the stigma surrounding homelessness through increased visibility and conversation.

Policy Changes

On a larger scale, institutional and governmental policy changes are required to support students experiencing homelessness. As education becomes more unaffordable, it increases the risks faced by economically vulnerable individuals entering school. When these students enrol and face costs that are beyond their reach, it can lead to them becoming homeless. Universities and colleges can face obstacles including scarce resources and a shortage of faculty or staff time, so it’s important that students have adequate support before they arrive on campus.

  • Government grants: In Canada, grants are available for part-time and full-time students, students with dependents, students with disabilities and students from low and middle-income families. The Ontario government recently announced an Ontario Student Grant, which would pay for average college or university tuition for students from families with incomes of $50,000 or less. Ontario’s plan to improve access to post-secondary education is outlined in the Ontario 2016 budget.
  • Eviction prevention: Students need to have crisis supports when they are at risk of being evicted to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. These crisis supports, as discussed previously, can be made available to students through a university point-of-contact. Eviction prevention strategies can include landlord/tenant legislation, rent control and housing education for students.
  • More affordable student housing: Many Canadian cities suffer from a shortage of campus accommodation, increasing the demand and the cost of housing. For students in Ontario, home to more than 25 colleges and 40 universities, finding suitable and affordable accommodation can prove challenging. Canada needs a greater supply of new affordable rental housing for all its citizens, not just students. The Government of Canada is currently working to develop a new National Housing Strategy to meet the needs of all Canadians, and you can make your voice heard by taking this brief survey.

What supports are available in your college/university?

It’s clear that there are a variety of different supports available for students across the U.S. and Canada, too many to capture in one blog post. What supports are available on your campus or in your community? What supports do you think are needed? Join us over on the Community Workspace on Homelessness and share your thoughts!

Canadian National Housing Strategy
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