The Invisible Dilemma of Collegiate Homelessness
Shanika Lavi Wilson1*, Larry D Williams1 and Monica Leach2
1 Department of Social Work, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina, USA
2 Enrollment Management and Academic Affairs, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina, USA
*Corresponding author: Shanika Lavi Wilson, Department of Social Work, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina, USA, E-Mail: swils108@NCCU.EDU
Citation: Shanika LW, Larry DW, Monica L (2019) The Invisible Dilemma of Collegiate Homelessness. J Psychiatry Behav Ther 2019: 37-40.
Received Date: 22 January 2019; Accepted Date: 11 February 2019; Published Date: 15 February 2019
Homelessness affects thousands of college students each year. The “Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) estimated that 58,000 students are homeless on campuses nationwide”. The exact number of students who experience homelessness is unknown. Some students may be afraid or ashamed to report at some point during their college career that they experienced homelessness. College and universities must due their due diligence is to identify why college students may experience homelessness, identify the effects collegiate homelessness has on their students’ wellbeing, and identify effective and efficient ways to assist college students who can be identified as homeless. With very little research on the topic of collegiate homelessness this paper hopes to provide colleges and universities with effective ways to assist homeless college students and add to the literature on the subject matter.
Keywords: College; Collegiate; Homeless; Homelessness; Students; University
Homelessness is a rising problem experienced by thousands of college students. College and university students can have various nomadic experiences that include housing instability . For the purpose of this paper college students are “individuals between the ages of 18-24 who are enrolled in any public or private post-secondary higher educational instruction”. Homelessness can be identified as a person “who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” . It can also be a person “who has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground” . The number of college students fitting this criterion are on the rise. Ringer et al , stated the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) estimated that 58,000 students are homeless on campuses nationwide . Researchers are unable to identify an exact number of homeless college students in the United States. This is due fear of being shamed by their peers, faculty, or staff. This makes it impossible for colleges and universities to adequately assist these students in need and presents difficulty in identifying how many students will need help in the future. College and universities must due their due diligence is to identify why college students may experience homelessness, identify the effects collegiate homelessness has on their students’ well-being, review policies on homelessness, and identify effective and efficient ways to assist college students who can be identified as homeless. With very little research on the topic of collegiate homelessness this paper hopes to provide colleges and universities with effective ways to assist homeless college students and add to the literature on the subject matter.
Defining Collegiate Homelessness
Researchers have found that college students need a definition of homelessness explicitly tailored to their experience. Homeless college students:
“are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship or similar reason; living in emergency or transitional shelters; have a primary nighttime residence that is a private or public place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings, and forced to share housing with others, commonly referred to as “double- ups” to “couch surf (frequently move from house to house without a designated residence)” .
Many students are ignored when their institution does not have an all-encompassing definition of collegiate homelessness. College and university administrators, faculty, and staff should be aware of this definition of collegiate homelessness in order to better identify and assist homeless college students on their respective campuses. It will also be beneficial if each institution of higher education creates and uses a specialized definition of homelessness tailored to their campus.
Reasons for Collegiate Homelessness
There are various reasons why college students can become homeless. “Homelessness can strike college students at any time and for a variety of reasons: financial aid is delayed, a poor choice is made, a car breaks down, a parent gets sick, and sometimes a door has been shut.” . Ringer , also found “as a result of the rising costs of tuition and student debt, a trend of housing instability among college students has emerged, with some experiencing actual homelessness.” These phase of life matters can affect college students’ housing as well as their well-being. Regardless of why a college student experiences homelessness, it is vital that colleges and universities support their students “from a structural framework that does not blame the victims” . While many universities want to take the time to identify why students are homeless, it will be imperative to identify what this student population will need.
Effects of Collegiate Homelessness
There needs to be more research on the effects of homelessness on college students. Researchers have found “more than 45 percent of those who stopped attending college because of mental health-related reasons did not receive accommodations” . “Additionally, 50 percent of them did not access mental health services and supports”  College students are experiencing mental health symptoms at the same rates as adults. Some mental health symptoms may affect the student’s well-being and academics. “According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States” . At a minimum, 140,000 or 25 percent of these people were seriously mentally ill, and 250,000 or 45 percent had any mental illness” . There is a correlation between mental health and homelessness; therefore, it is imperative that colleges and universities effectively assist homeless college students experiencing signs of mental health disorders. College and university counseling centers must know how to accurately diagnose, assess, and provide treatment for college students experiencing mental health symptoms and homelessness.
The existing theoretical framework relevant to collegiate homelessness is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
“In his influential paper of 1943, A Theory of Human Motivation, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs are met” .
The research identifies if the physical, security, social, and ego needs are met, then a person can achieve self-actualization. If college students are unable to have their basic needs met, it will be difficult for them to excel in their academic pursuits. “Maslow called the bottom four levels of the pyramid ‘deficiency needs’ because a person does not feel anything if they are achieved but becomes anxious if they are not” . Housing is a need that will make anyone anxious if they no longer have access to it. Therefore, it is imperative the college and universities have resources to support students' physical and security needs. If these two needs are not achieved, it will be impossible for a student to achieve the other needs or do well in their degree program. The Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness (n.d), identified “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs should be applied to and combat the intersectionality of hunger and homelessness”. Assessments can be made to identify if colleges and universities are providing support and resources for each of the detrimental Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is met. For example, they are identifying if college campuses have emergency housing, food pantries, and sliding scale health care costs for college students with financial insecurities.
Policies on Collegiate Homelessness
There are very few policies that address collegiate homelessness. Title VI of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, Title VI of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (Public Law 110-84) is intended to make college more accessible to homeless youth. The Act expands the "definition of “independent student” to encompass individuals who were in foster care at any time from the age of 13 and older, verified as unaccompanied youth or as homeless youth during the year they submit a financial aid application or were determined to be unaccompanied, at risk of homelessness, and self-supporting, as verified by a designated liaison . While this policy is to make college accessible to youth that was in foster care or homeless youth it does not directly deal with the needs of homeless college students.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act mainly focuses on the needs of primary and secondary school students. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act (MVHEA) “mandates that each K-12 school district designate a McKinney-Vento liaison to ensure that all educational barriers for homeless youth are removed” . If the student was documented as homeless in high school, the designated liaison could assist in filling out a FAFSA, which improves the student’s opportunity to receive Financial Aid. “However, similar to college students experiencing homelessness, students in high school who are homeless may choose not to disclose their homeless status to school officials”. Moreover, while the McKinney-Vento Act has many accommodations for K-12 students who experience homelessness, they do not directly address the needs of homeless college students.
Ways to Assist Homeless College Students
Many of the homeless college students must identify when and where they will eat, sleep, study, shower, and store their items in addition to pursuing their education. “To accommodate the growing homeless population within their student bodies, colleges have begun to craft programs that address students’ non-academic needs” . With numbers of homeless college students on the rise, many institutions of higher education are identifying ways to assist this population directly. “Some programs address housing insecurity, food insecurity, child care, and health insurance coverage” . However, many colleges do not have the budget, staff, or support to provide these resources which leaves students feeling invisible and unsupported. Ringer  found “colleges and universities can do more to assist homeless college students.” Despite the lack of budget and staff there are various ways these bodies of higher education can do more.
Students, higher education administrators, faculty, and staff al need to be on one accord as it relates to providing resources to college students who are homeless. Institutions of higher education should use focus groups and interview homeless college students to identify their campus needs. College campuses should deal with this matter at the micro, macro, and mezzo social worker levels. At the micro level campuses should provide assessments, case management, advocacy, and mental health treatment to college students experiencing homelessness in addition to safe housing. At the macro level colleges should identify policies that deal with the matter of collegiate homeless as well as draft policies to assist homeless college students on their campus and apart of surrounding communities. Moreover, colleges and universities should work with communities, agencies, churches, community centers, and local businesses to provide resources and support for homeless college students. More research needs to occur regarding the assessment, advocacy, intervention, and prevention of collegiate homelessness.