Advising Hungering and Homeless College Students

Sometimes, academics speak of a thirst or hunger for knowledge; far less often, they speak of literal the hunger or homelessness of college students.  In the past couple years, I have met with a few students who were homeless or hungry.  There are resources to assist them – but they’re mostly tied to the community rather than campus. Today, new information about poverty rates will be released.  Friday’s Daily Kos included in its digest, “Students shouldn’t go hungry on college campuses.”  The digest includes a link to an article, “How one student is fighting the college hunger crisis.And, it doesn’t take much searching to find others, e.g., “College Students Are Going Homeless and Hungry — And Corporate America Is Trying to Exploit Them.”  See also, Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty: Impact on College Students Conference.

I think of college students as a fairly privileged segment of society.  Encountering their homelessness and hunger – and working with students having those problems – to those was something new.  In the instances I dealt with, there was an abrupt change in financial circumstances: Parents could no longer support them at college.  Students lost their job suddenly and had no financial reserves.  Students lost a lease. And, in one case, I think there were larger issues.  I helped each of these students as best as I could.

In thinking about how I responded, I think there were three guiding principles in my assisting them:

  • Finish the semester as well as possible. (My thought here is that when a student owes for a semester, he or she ought to do everything possible to extract the maximum possible learning and progress toward a degree.  Dropping out just yields more debt, more problems and no progress towards a degree. So, my advice here was work to get extra time to finish the semester for exams, papers and so on. Keep other units informed.)
  • Help students identify personal resources. (When a student’s family has a short-term financial reversal, sometimes a friend or a relative may be willing to help the student pay the rent for a month or two – enough to finish a semester. Other times, a friend may allow long-term “couch-surfing.” These are not good long-term solutions, but they’re a band-aid. They allow a student to finish the semester.)
  • Work to identify community resources for the student. (More campus resources would be nice, but on my inquiry, it didn’t look like there was very much there.  Discovering community resources was a better path.  The way to discover community resources is talking to other advisors and other folks in the community. And, you can do this faster from your office than most students can.  I was surprised, for example, to discover a student-run food pantry for students. There are other resources.)

Ultimately, I am not sure what the best practices for this situation are. In general, homelessness is not a problem academic advisors are called upon to solve.  My first calls were to units around campus but I gather – at least on my campus – the problem is sufficiently rare that there was no particular set of resources ready there to deal with the problem.  My hunch is that most folks believe homeless students shouldn’t be spending money on college. However reasonable that view might be, it doesn’t help students who are suddenly homeless in the midst of a semester.

Undoubtedly, when faced with this problem, the advisor’s first priorities are getting the students most pressing concerns addressed. Maybe that’s a meal and a place to stay for the short-term, but maybe it’s something else.  Probably, addressing those first priorities involves a referral, but matters don’t end with the referral.  Unlike a social worker who might start look to longer term solutions, an advisor – after addressing the immediate needs – should help capture the benefit in the short time frame of a semester, my view is it’s best to salvage as much of the semester as possible since the knowledge and the credits are resources that a student may draw upon in the future.   I’ve talked about what I did, and maybe that strategy will help advisors work with other students in this situation.

Post script: Today’s (December 24, 2014) Huffington Post has an article, ” A Look Into The ‘Double Lives’ Of America’s Homeless College Students.”  An interesting point made in the article is some assessment of the magnitude of the problem: It reports 58,000 homeless college students — a 75% increase over the past three years. Also of interest are the stories it offers of some homeless college students.  I do wonder about one issue: How does being homeless affect the full range of benefits provided by a college education?  My guess is that it makes studying harder, but it also makes networking, experience-building extra-curricular activities and other activities often associated with college difficult or impossible. Some assessment of those aspects would be worthwhile to learn and report.