June 23, 2016; Los Angeles Times and VICE

Where do college students live? A dorm, perhaps, or a “Greek” house. An off-campus apartment, or at home with parents. Surprisingly, according to research commissioned by California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, for between eight and twelve percent of the 460,000 students enrolled in his multi-campus system, the answer is “nowhere.” They are homeless.

We are no longer surprised by how the growing price of postsecondary education has forced many young adults to defer their studies in order to earn a living. The Cal State study has shed light on a significant number of enrolled students who fight the struggle to remain in school by not spending on a permanent place to sleep.

One such homeless student, this one from Vancouver, wrote last year for VICE about his experiences:

I was at a bar a while back with some of my university friends, sharing beers and relaxing, when a homeless man approached us. He had a deck of cards, and was trying to entertain us for money. Everyone laughed him off, making the usual jokes about homeless people trying to bum change for drugs. I didn’t say anything. After a few beers, I quietly excused myself. I had a curfew that night at the homeless shelter.

I was used to making exits like this. For almost a year prior, I had found ways to delicately balance my social life in college with the restrictions of being homeless, often leaving early from social outings with the excuse that I was tired or had to study, so that I could secure a place to sleep that night.

The Cal State study was led by Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Cal State Long Beach. According to the L.A. Times, “Crutchfield…interviewed 92 students and conducted four focus groups at urban and rural campuses. She and her team also sent out surveys, reviewed existing resources, and asked university staff, faculty, and administrators for their impressions of the level of homelessness on their campuses.”

Her definition of homelessness included those who lived in their cars, “couch-surfed” in friends’ rooms, and lived in shelters. (One of the problems with earlier studies is that they underreported the number of students dealing with displacement or unstable housing.) She also found that homelessness was not the only problem; between 21 and 24 percent of the student body were also food insecure.

As college administrators become more aware of the problems faced by some of their students, they are developing support programs. For example, Fresno State “launched a ‘cupboard’ last fall that tracks leftover food from catered campus events and developed an app that notifies students when food is available.” Efforts are made to identify students with housing problems and to help find them a roof and a place to study. Student by student, help is provided.

But more systemic responses are needed. In a public education system that copes each year with more than 1 million homeless children in grades K-12, homeless college students are inevitable. Real solutions will come when we recognize homelessness not only as a sign of individuals in distress, but as an urgent challenge for every level of society to recognize and address. In the words of “Taylor SJ” from Vancouver,

There are so many stereotypes about what it means to be homeless: People assume the homeless are lazy, strung-out, irresponsible, and incapable of leading normal lives. I’ve found the exact opposite. Being homeless forced me to work ten times as hard for my goals. While I watched other students absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook or shopping online during lectures, I had no choice but to focus. There was no Internet in homeless shelters; I didn’t have the luxury of studying whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted, and failing was not an option.

—Martin Levine