Bearing the cold of homelessness in college


College students are the ramen eating dwellers of society. Their stereotypical cash-strapped experience can be viewed as a rite of passage into adulthood. Yet, a study conducted by the US Census Bureau between 2009-2011 found that 51.8 percent of students living off campus, and not with relatives, are living below the poverty line.

In a commuter school like CU Denver, US News estimated in 2012 that 75 percent of freshman students lived off campus, the fourth most in the nation. This statistic could mean that factors like the economic downturn and the high interest rates on student loans are causing a large percentage of the student body to experience hunger and homelessness.

According to several offices on campus, including the Women’s Resource Office and the Office of Student Life, they are seeing an increase in students coming in to ask for assistance.

“I’m seeing a lot of homeless, hungry, or struggling students,” said Carisa Weaver, the Womens Resource Coordinator for CU Denver. She also adds that many people aren’t in-tune with the issue, “There is not a whole lot of awareness that they even exist,” Weaver said.

Currently a Junior studying Geography and hoping to acquire a GIS certificate, Paul [last name withheld],  a CU Denver student, recalls how he first experienced homelessness.

“My mother passed away when I was 13, and my dad wasn’t all that hands-on. He was a great dad–—he went to work and there was never any worries about him providing stuff. But in terms of teaching, he wasn’t there. He was also an older guy, so he had neither the skill nor the energy to raise a rambunctious teenager,” Paul said.

“I got fired from jobs for playing practical jokes; then I was confronted with reality after I dropped out of high school. I went to watch a friend graduate from high school. When they threw everything up in the air, it epitomized the whole event,” Paul said. “I went and got my GED right after that.”

“At 18, my dad kicked me out and I went to live at my friend’s house. But he left for college, and I stayed another day before his parents asked what my plan was. I didn’t leave the basement the whole day,” Paul said.

“When I did leave, I’ll never forget this night. It was so cold, there was snow on the ground. I took everything out of my bag and put it on, and tried to sleep in a tube slide and it was so cold. I will never forget those two nights as long as I live. It was all these layers on, and the cold was coming in wherever there was a seam in my clothes,” Paul said. “I got no sleep, I was so tired, and I probably smelled. The only thing worse than that night, was the second night.”

“Eventually, I got enrolled in this program through the Mayor’s office of workforce development at CCD that my case manager told me about. I did really well, and I probably got the best grades out of everybody there,” Paul said. “Everyone there was older than me-—20’s, 30’s, 40’s.”

Paul would go on to obtain his Associate’s Degree in IT from CCD. After a short stint with an oil and gas company left him hungry for more, he transferred to CU Denver.

When asked how he’s been able to pay for college, Paul said, “As a financial aid student, I’ve always qualified for the full amount of Pell Grant and those things made it possible for me to go to school. That, and loans for CU Denver.”

Currently, Paul’s living situation is stable. “I live in a big Victorian mansion in Capitol Hill, and it’s kind of like an apartment situation. I live with a bunch of roommates right now,” Paul said.

Yet, despite his success, he still faces continual struggles that plague him. After recently finding out that he hit his lifetime limit on Pell and Colorado Opportunity Fund, he admits schoolwork doesn’t come easy. “I can’t focus on my schoolwork as much as I would like to, because I’m more concerned with taking care of myself. It puts schoolwork in a place where I’m drawn away from it,” Paul said. “My financial aid got cut, I knew it was. I thought I could do it anyway, but I was wrong about that.”

Additionally, Paul faces hardships that include teachers who expect him to purchase extra materials that are not factored into his tuition bill—materials that he didn’t budget for. “It’s a funny place to be. I hate telling teachers about my situation out of fear of rejection, since we all have problems. But there is also a bit of pride. I hate the feeling of trying to make the special exception for me. I want to be the same as all the other students,” Paul said.

Nelson Rodriguez, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Office of Student Life, hopes to establish a timeline to collect data and take action accordingly.

“I’m hoping that this year we collect the information that we need to start proposing different programs,” Rodriguez said. “For me personally, one homeless student is one too many. I would like to make sure no student is deprived of basic needs. As an institution, I think we need to collect numbers and make certain that there is a need for these programs on this campus.” Fortunately, CU Denver is making efforts to do so with the first annual Auraria Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, which took place on Nov. 18–22 this year.

In a collaborative effort between CCD, MSU, and CU Denver, many of Denver’s local non-profit organizations and social programs like the Volunteers of America and Urban Peak, came to campus to offer assistance to those in need. They provided information and resources on how to obtain food, shelter, and housing assistance like SNAP and subsidized housing.

Nonetheless, because of limited data available, it is unknown how many others, like Paul, have been or still are homeless. Only those that acknowledge their situation to FAFSA are actually counted. Those numbers, while informative, don’t tell the full story. They only encompass students between the ages of 18–24 who are considered unaccompanied youth, and are required to disclose said information for aid purposes. Those outside that age group are not required to report that information.

Ismael Garcia, the Human Resource Specialist for CCD, describes how his college has proactively been seeking to find that information over the past three years.

“Every college has a single point of contact who works with the unaccompanied youth who have often times been aged out of foster care, are adults now, but have no place to go,” Garcia said. “I work directly with ours. But we also found out through an anonymous student survey that was administered to 500-600 students, and gave us a snapshot of how many students are homeless.”

The results of the survey surprised many. “It was pretty astonishing. About four percent said they were homeless, 10 percent said they had experienced homelessness at one point in their college career, and 20 percent said they feared or stressed about losing their home or being evicted,” Garcia said.

The information collected allowed the college to establish a plan which led to the creation of a food pantry, lending textbook library, and a housing subsidy program.

“I’ve focused on developing some programs and services, like requesting funds to go towards emergency housing and housing subsidies from CCD’s activity fees—$25,000 for an academic year. We’ve given out between 10-15 housing scholarships over the past two years each semester,” Garcia said. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps.”

CU Denver currently houses a food pantry in its Office of Student Life, and as Rodriguez points out, the need is visible at CU Denver as well. “We have a food pantry that students utilize, we see anywhere between 25-30 students a week, 54 in total,” Rodriguez said, “The programs that CCD offers is something we would like to mirror one day.”

“Here at CU Denver, we really have no idea how many of our students are experiencing homelessness. Our institution has never conducted a survey to find those numbers. We shared the survey that CCD used with our institutional research. They had concerns about it being skewed and flawed, and advised us not to use that exact survey,” Rodriguez said.

Nevertheless, Rodriguez made it clear that any student who faces struggles can always come to him. “I will meet with students individually and see what we can do to meet their needs,” Rodriguez said.

As for Paul, he continues to work over 30 hours a week, go to school full time, occasionally volunteers at the Volunteers of America, and is currently looking for an internship.

Colorado Gives Day, is on Dec. 10. Donations to various non-profits are always appreciated.