She’s not a druggie or an alcoholic, and she’s not mentally ill. She’s one of thousands of college students who can’t afford a place to live.
She might be someone whose scholarship doesn’t cover housing. Or her family lost their home after racking up mountains of medical bills. She could be the first in her family to attend college and can barely afford tuition. She might be transitioning and her family kicked her out.
You may have no clue she’s struggling to attend classes, do her assignments, and hold down a job. She doesn’t want you to know.
Part of the “hidden homeless,” these students try to blend in, knowing if they reveal their situation, people will see them as “damaged” or “mentally fragile.” They know they will be stereotyped and labeled when all they want is to be seen as normal.
You may have seen them asleep in the library or crashed on a friend’s floor. They’ll try to make sure you don’t see them sleeping in their car.
They won’t advertise they’re hungry, but most of them are. They may be living on one or two meals a day of cheap fast food.
I became obsessed with homelessness among college students when I wrote my new novel, What I Want You to See, about a first-year art student who finally got a place to live after months of sleeping in her car. When she realizes she’s in danger of losing her scholarship, she makes a desperate choice that snares her in a masterful crime.
I didn’t realize until then how many students grapple with homelessness or housing insecurity (when someone struggles to pay rent), but students at both two-year and four-year colleges and even elite universities are affected.
How many college students need stable housing? No one knows for sure, but it looks like at least 1 in 7 or as high as 1 in 5. Chances are if you’re in a small class or a large lecture hall, you’re with students who could use help.
Students like you are making a difference. On campuses across the country, student activists are inventing solutions to get help into the hands of those who need it.
How can you help?
- Learn: Research what your campus is doing—or not yet doing. Follow #RealCollege on Twitter to see what other schools offer.
- Volunteer: Get involved with the campus food bank or recovery program. Help with a Swipes Drive to get students to donate unused portions of their meal plans to others.
- Advocate: If your campus lacks a food bank, emergency housing, or a liaison to connect needy students with services, organize like-minded students to push for change.
- Communicate: Spread the word about what’s available on campus and nearby. Too few students know about federal and local programs that help with food, utility, and transportation costs.
Finally, help reduce the stigma by being mindful when you speak; drop the bad jokes and demeaning labels. The girl next to you in Econ will appreciate it.
Catherine Linka’s new novel, What I Want You to See, was recently published in February 2020.
She can be found online at www.catherinelinka.com and on social media.