By Susan Frick
In Spring 2012, sophomore Shanequa Bernard stood on the Theatre UCF stage sporting a long skirt, mustard-gold blouse and a mood as jaunty as the beat playing in the background:
“Gettin’, Gettin’, Gettin’, Ready Rag”
The cast of men and women took turns dancing and catcalling as they urged a Harlem musician to follow his heart and dreams:
“You gotta find your girl, Coalhouse/ And win her back!”
“That was one of the best times of my life,” Bernard recalls now. The Bright Futures scholar was an ‘A’ student with a double major in theatre and legal studies and had won a role in the university production of “Ragtime.”
The high point was a long climb from her senior year of high school in Ellenton, Florida, where Bernard’s family became homeless after her mother lost her job. They moved from hotels to relatives’ homes; stability was lacking, and college represented a way out of that desperate situation. “I thought, ‘I’m doing exactly what I want to do with my life. I finally made it to college, and from here on everything is going to be wonderful.’ ”
Then the lights dimmed.
A year later, Bernard was struggling to play the role of a successful college student. She’d lost some financial aid, and her expenses piled up. Soon she couldn’t make rent. So she packed her belongings in two zebra-print suitcases and moved from student housing to a cheaper apartment she shared with three roommates. When she could no longer afford that, she slept on friends’ couches. “I’d go to school every day with a smile on my face while I wondered where I was going to sleep at night,” she remembers.
Fighting to manage the demands of school, a part-time retail job and her uncertain housing situation, Bernard stopped participating in theater and other activities. She considered dropping out of school altogether. But another voice told her to keep going, that nothing — not even homelessness — would prevent her from earning her degree. “Because you’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for your family,” she says.
Bernard wasn’t alone. An estimated 58,000 college students across the nation (and about 3,500 in Florida) reported being homeless in 2013 on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Determined to improve their lives through higher education, they slept in cars or shelters, camped in the woods, couch surfed or sought shelter in darkened campus buildings. Determining accurate statistics on homelessness is difficult, but at UCF, advocates are working to document this invisible population so the university can find ways to better serve those facing a financial crisis.
“There is a lot of shame associated with being homeless, and students try to hide it if they can.”
Seeing a Hidden Problem
Homelessness among college students has existed almost undetected for years, according to UCF experts.
“[Homeless students] blend in with other college students; they’re all wearing jeans and T-shirts,” says Amy Donley, assistant professor of sociology. “There is a lot of shame associated with being homeless, and students try to hide it if they can.”
When Donley learned that one of her former students had lived in the woods while taking her courses, she was disturbed. “My students know I study homelessness, and [that student’s situation] was never brought up,” she says. “When students do disclose, it is typically because their grades are suffering and they feel like they have to explain their situation.”
“People don’t realize how prevalent it is,” says biology instructor Pam Thomas. Through gentle inquiry, she has discovered at least a dozen students in her classes who’ve faced homelessness over the past three years. “Sometimes they come into my office to talk about their grades, but they just look like they’ve seen a ghost.”
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. Sometimes a door has been shut.
“A very large subset of youth have been kicked out [of their homes],” says Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY). “They have no relationship with their parents and can’t get the information [they need] to apply for financial aid.
“Most are students who have had very challenging lives and yet see education and college as the way out,” Duffield says. “And that’s really the marvel, the miracle and hope in all that. The kind of persistence and tenacity [they show] to really keep going despite all the obstacles.”
“People assume if you have enough money to afford tuition, you should have enough money to afford housing and all the associated costs,” says Lauren Cantrell, UCF’s first homeless student resource liaison for AmeriCorps VISTA. “That is just not the case. Many [students] are coming from a background without the life-skills training, parental support or monetary resources they need.”
To measure the extent of the problem, Cantrell, a graduate student in the College of Health and Public Affairs, is working with Donley to survey at least 500 UCF students about their experiences and knowledge of homelessness on campus. She is also creating community resource guides for all UCF campuses and an interactive online map to help students locate the closest shelters.
Though some universities have created programs to help their homeless students, this age group typically doesn’t receive the same protections from the federal government as schoolchildren. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001, K–12 school districts must document homeless students, enroll them without delay, and provide transportation to and from school.
There are about 12,000 homeless students in Central Florida’s K–12 public schools, according to Thomas Bryer, director of UCF’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Management. Center members began working with AmeriCorps VISTA to help ensure that these schoolchildren have what they need to succeed, but then expanded the partnership’s focus to include higher education and to create Cantrell’s new position. “In talking with our colleagues at UCF, it became clear that [homelessness] is not just an issue that affects K–12 students,” Bryer says.
“You’re gaining weight, you’re not healthy, and you don’t have energy. Any time that you can, you’re trying to sleep, but you really don’t get any sleep.”
Offering a Helping Hand
Overcoming society’s stigma is one of the first obstacles to helping homeless college students, says Pam Thomas. Since students are often guarded, she has learned to ask the right questions. “I want to make sure you have a place to stay,” she says. “That you have food, you’re in a safe place, and you’re not exposed to any violence.”
She points struggling students to campus resources such as Student Care Services (SCS), which helps students in distress respond to challenges from homelessness and hazing to mental illness and domestic violence.
SCS care manager Ann Marie Palmer says her office sees five to 10 homeless students each semester, along with 20 to 40 students facing financial hardship; however, there could be more. “Only in the last year have we really tried to start marketing [university support programs] to students,” she says, and many are still unaware of the services available to help them.
SCS connects students with campus resources such as career services, tutoring, campus jobs and counseling. Homeless college students in Florida can apply for a tuition waiver, and Palmer’s office guides them through the process. If approved, the student can apply any federal financial aid they already receive to housing or other necessities. SCS also refers them to community organizations, including the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and Covenant House Florida.
For some students, housing troubles are a temporary setback, but those with a background of chronic homelessness often face a more challenging journey. “We try to meet students where they are developmentally, emotionally and academically, and our role is to give them as many options and resources as possible,” Palmer says.
UCF, for example, is one of the few universities in the country to run a food bank, according to Donley. The Knights Helping Knights Pantry allows individuals to select up to five food items a day, from canned soup to cereal to kale grown at the UCF Arboretum — no questions asked. It also provides basic toiletries and clothing. Students made more than 11,000 visits to the pantry last year.
Bernard was grateful for the pantry, though she acknowledges being ashamed to go there at first. “But after a while, you break down and think, ‘You know what? I’m really hungry, and I know I can’t keep on going to McDonald’s.’ ”
Two semesters of couch surfing took a toll on her. “You’re gaining weight, you’re not healthy, and you don’t have energy,” she says. “Any time that you can, you’re trying to sleep, but you really don’t get any sleep.”
Then her car broke down, and so did Bernard. She recalls weeping in the parking lot of the shopping plaza where she worked. It wasn’t just a car. It was “the thing that’s helping you get the money to at least survive and pinch pennies to get something to eat. This is your means for everything,” she explains.
Bernard decided to move to Washington, D.C. to stay with her fiancé while she worked to save money and completed an internship at a radio station. She took two semesters off from UCF before returning to her studies via online courses. Bernard wishes she had tapped into other campus resources — she was unaware of the tuition waiver and other opportunities for assistance. What kept her going was faith that she was doing the right thing.
“If we don’t help those students get through whatever challenge they’re experiencing, we’re doing a disservice not only to the university but the broader society. We would fail in our mission for education.”
Creating a Safety Net
At NAEHCY, Duffield is focused on several initiatives to make college more accessible to students who are struggling financially. Her organization supports a bill that would require colleges and universities to provide a single point of contact to help homeless and foster youth navigate the system of support services. It also would require a plan to help homeless students find housing during school breaks and give them priority in the Federal Work-Study Program, among other directives. Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia and Massachusetts have successfully implemented some or all of these programs, she says.
“We are seeing exciting and promising practices develop as higher education becomes more aware of these unique challenges and tries to respond to them.”
Through her own research, Cantrell has found that 21 colleges and universities offer emergency assistance grants to financially distressed students, generally in amounts between $500 and $5,000. She proposes creating a similar fund through the UCF Foundation, which would be supported by donations from alumni, parents, students and friends of the university.
“We have the second-largest student population in the country, so there’s no reason we wouldn’t be able to [accomplish this].”
Donley believes that documenting homelessness on campus is a critical next step. This could be accomplished through the registration process each semester. “It would also let students know that there are resources for them if they do experience homelessness,” she says.
Once the magnitude of the problem is known, UCF can accomplish much by working closely with local agencies, Donley says. “I don’t really think anybody is going to have to create anything from scratch.”
Bryer agrees. “The university is not a social service agency,” he says. On the other hand, it should take steps to ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks. “Can the university potentially develop a one-stop entity through Knights Pantry or another place where we know students are likely to go? I think we can learn from agencies in the community that are integrating these services already and try to replicate that model, at least in miniature, on campus.”
Whatever programs are in place, adds Bryer, it’s essential to educate the UCF community so they know where to send students in trouble. “If we don’t help those students get through whatever challenge they’re experiencing, we’re doing a disservice not only to the university but the broader society. We would fail in our mission for education.”
Reaching the Final Act
Bernard needs to complete two more courses to graduate this semester. She’s taking them online while staying with relatives in Tampa. Not only is her degree in sight, her confidence has returned. She sent a poster-size résumé to a radio station, telling them why they should hire her as an intern. “They called me within an hour of receiving it.”
Now her dream is to become a radio personality as well as a public speaker, so she can inspire others with her experience.
“The struggle is so real, but it is the struggle that makes me appreciate my degrees so much more,” Bernard says. “Someone can take away your home, your money and your physical possessions, but they can’t take away your knowledge.”