“Students attending colleges and universities across the United States experience homelessness and housing insecurity.” We consistently start our presentations with this statement. We get one of two responses. Shock and disbelief that homelessness and housing insecurity exist in any significant way on college campuses. Or relief that research is finally validating what some students, instructors, community members and professional staff have known for many years.
While homelessness and housing insecurity are not new issues for those who have worked with youth in community-based organizations across the country, the emerging awareness in higher education that students are experiencing these issues has raised concern, prompted institutional responses and encouraged students to amplify their voices to press educators to think critically about how to include basic needs as part of their mission for student success.
Homelessness and housing insecurity are complex social issues on their own. Adding the context of postsecondary education can further complicate the issue and potential solutions. We name and respond to the questions we are most frequently asked.
What is homelessness and housing insecurity?
Housing insecurity is a broad categorization within which homelessness fits. In essence, homelessness is the most severe form of housing insecurity. How these terms get defined in the context of policy has significant implications. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development narrowly defines homelessness with a focus on chronic homelessness among individuals living on the streets or in homeless shelters.
In part, this decision reflects the need to direct the department’s limited resources toward those individuals in most extreme need — as well as those who have the most obvious need. Addressing the issues of chronic homelessness tends to be both an attempt to support individuals in need and to address what can be perceived as a public nuisance. This approach excludes large numbers of individuals who experience the lack of stable housing, including college students.
Educators and advocates argue for a more nuanced understanding of homelessness and housing insecurity. For the purposes of this discussion, we focus on how these issues present themselves in higher education. Housing insecurity involves any residential situation that may not be or remain fixed, regular and adequate. This language mirrors what is used by the Department of Education for students in preschool through high school. Among others, individuals who are in the process of being evicted or cannot pay their rent would be housing insecure.
Homeless is when individuals experience lack of fixed, regular and adequate housing. College students experiencing homelessness may be living in cars, hotels, motels, abandoned buildings or homeless shelters. In rural areas, they could be residing in barns or tents. Students could also be couch surfing, which may involve staying in a different friend’s home or residence hall each night. We have also heard of students sleeping in the library, labs or other buildings on campus. Homelessness and housing insecurity can look many different ways depending upon the student’s situation and the local context. Without careful assessment, the issue may be invisible to postsecondary institutions.
Are homelessness, housing insecurity a problem for postsecondary students?
The exact number of postsecondary students experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness is not currently available. Federal and state governments do not require colleges and universities to gather or report this information.
However, emerging research underscores how a significant percentage of students across the nation experience homelessness and housing insecurity. Studies from across the country have shown high rates for students. As many as 60% of students experience housing insecurity and 19% of students experience homelessness in California Community Colleges. The California State University (CSU) system reported that 10.9% of students experienced homelessness. In the City University of New York system, 55% of students reported experiencing housing instability and 14% experience homelessness.
Homelessness is a symptom of other social issues. The story of the homeless experience is just as diverse as the populations of students in our colleges and universities. People from underserved and marginalized backgrounds are more likely to experience housing insecurity and homelessness. There are some students who have experienced homelessness prior their start in higher education, but many others who have not. Some students who have been under the oversight of child protective services leave care under-resourced and undersupported, while others have never been connected to foster care, but may have dealt with some of the same abuse and neglect in their past.
Other students have strong linkages to their families, but must sustain themselves financially while attending college. Further, “nontraditional” students are outnumbering those students who enter college directly from high school. Students are now generally older, may have dependents or other caregiving roles, and are more likely to depend on part- or full-time work to meet the fiscal demands of home and work.
Some students may find themselves involved in the legal system. Individuals living in public areas may receive tickets or may have their vehicles impounded. Students who reside in garages or similar spaces not intended for habitation may be evicted with little notice. For a number of reasons, college students experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity may benefit from access to legal counsel. However, they often have limited access to or are unaware that such services may exist on or near campus.
Is housing really the responsibility of postsecondary institutions?
We find this question of particular interest. In essence, are colleges and universities primarily institutions of education that are interested in disseminating information, building content knowledge and conferring degrees? Or, do these institutions have a responsibility to the students that extends beyond these basic functions?
In particular, public postsecondary institutions are designed and funded to serve individuals living in a particular state. As the needs of a workforce become increasingly technical and require specialized knowledge, the ability to earn a living wage has become more difficult without a postsecondary degree or credential. Assisting individuals in low-income situations attain a stable income and residential situation relates to these underlying goals of public postsecondary institutions.
Beyond the public good arguments (which can seem abstract), postsecondary institutions generally have a mission that involves serving and supporting students from diverse backgrounds. K-12 educators have long understood that if children do not have their basic needs met, they are unlikely to learn. Higher education is behind in understanding that if student success is fundamental to our work, then addressing basic needs is a part of achieving these goals. Federal and state governments are beginning to hold postsecondary institutions accountable for improving retention rates of students.
What can be done?
We have previously written about how colleges and universities can implement promising practices into their institutional structures and practices. Our book, “Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education: Strategies for Educational Leaders,” provides campus stakeholders with tangible steps to engage in progress to support students who experience these issues. Here, we share a few of those ideas:
- Get accurate data concerning how many students experience homelessness and what that may look like at your institution and in your local context. However, we discourage adding “Are you homeless?” to the current campus student survey. The CSU study survey instrument can be a place to go for ideas about how to gather data.
- Gather information from people on and around campus who are working on the issue of student homelessness. Find ways to integrate services as well as identifying gaps in support.
- Avoid the term “homeless” in all your work. Students tend to reject this identity because of the social shame associated with lacking a fixed residence.
- Consider a trauma-informed approach that addresses the student experiences leading to and resulting from housing insecurity.
- Avoid hiding resources on campus. The more centered the support, the less students will experience shame associated with utilizing the resource.
- Include students in all conversations related to data gathering and development of programming.
- Consider attending a meeting of researchers and professionals engaged with addressing basic needs insecurity among college students. RealCollege has an annual convening that brings together leaders and advocates from across the country to learn, grow and strategize tangible action large and small to address student basic needs. The California Community Colleges, University of California and California State University systems will convene educators from across the West Coast to work together to continue to make progress.
Rashida Crutchfield is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach. Ronald Hallett is a professor in the LaFetra College of Education at the University of LaVerne and a research associate in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Hallett, Crutchfield and Jennifer Maguire co-authored “Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education: Strategies for Educational Leaders,” which provides insight and practical tools for supporting students who experience homelessness in higher education.