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According to a study by Educational Researcher, at least one-third of students at two-year colleges and 11 percent to 19 percent of students at four-year schools face housing insecurity. The study included responses from more than 30,000 two-year and four-year students at 121 colleges and universities.
Another survey published by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE lab showed that more than a third of college students don’t always have enough to eat and lack stable housing. The study found that former foster youth were most at risk for housing and food insecurity. In addition, black students were 17 percent more likely to experience food insecurity than non-Hispanic whites and were at greater risk for housing insecurity. Further, a greater percentage of Native American and mixed-race students reported experiencing homelessness.
Although student hunger and homelessness are not new problems among college students, recent data suggests that they are getting worse. We spoke to Dr. Elizabeth Bowen, assistant professor of social work at the University of Buffalo, about homelessness among college students.
What are some of the main causes of homelessness and food insecurity among college students?
A number of factors could contribute to someone experiencing homelessness and food insecurity in college. Some students may have experienced these issues prior to starting to college. There is a myth that college is only for the middle class and wealthy, but young people from diverse economic backgrounds attend college (including community college, 2-year and 4-year institutions), and this includes young people with limited resources who may experience homelessness and food insecurity both prior to and during college. Having limited support from one’s family (which could be due to a variety of reasons, including conflict, abuse, or one’s family simply not having enough resources) could be another factor.
College students may not always know about which housing, food assistance, and public benefits programs they are eligible for, so that could compound the problem. Students who are parenting their own children are also at higher risk for homelessness and food insecurity. Another factor is aging out of the child welfare system, as young people who “age out” of foster care often have limited assistance and resources and experience very rates of homelessness. If you look up the researcher Jennifer Geiger she has done a lot of work on this. Lastly, housing costs are extremely expensive in many parts of the country, especially in California and the West Coast, and there is a severe nationwide shortage of affordable rental housing.
How can colleges identify and help students who are in need?
Colleges are still grappling with this issue. At many schools (including my own, University at Buffalo School of Social Work), faculty are adding statements to their class syllabi acknowledging that students may having challenges with housing and food insecurity and letting students know about where they can go on campus to get assistance. Many schools (again including my own) are also doing anonymous surveys to get a sense of the scope of the problem. But more assistance is still needed. While a lot of college campuses now host food pantries, this alone will not solve the problem of food insecurity. Further actions are needed, including changes in policy to make it easier for students to apply for and receive SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance. I think schools should also explore ways of providing emergency cash assistance to help students experiencing a housing or food insecurity crisis. It is important that schools recognize that homelessness and food insecurity are stigmatized and that students may be reluctant to seek help; therefore schools should focus on making assistance as easy and discrete as possible for students to access.
Can you offer any advice for students that are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity?
There should be no shame in experiencing homelessness or food insecurity in college (or ever). It’s not a personal failing—rather, it’s a societal failing that anyone in the U.S. experiences homelessness or food insecurity, including college students. Students should know they are not alone. I hope students feel empowered to seek assistance and to hold their institutions accountable to addressing homelessness and food insecurity as systemic issues on campus.
If you are a student experiencing housing or food insecurity, start with researching campus resources. Many colleges have food banks for students. Visit your student services office to inquire about assistance. For help with housing, look for housing grants online or through your financial aid office.