WASHINGTON — Regina Montoya, a senior at California State University, Sacramento, is managing a busy schedule this semester: two internships and a full course load. But she used to face a very different challenge: when the dorms were closed, she was homeless.
Montoya grew up shuttling between different relatives and a foster family. Moving constantly was hard, especially because she didn’t know long she would be living in one place. But she believed that going to college would make her living situation more stable, so she enrolled in a school in the Bay area.
“At my first year at university, it was hard because I never could shake the survival mode tactics. At holidays I couldn’t stay at the dorms, so I had to plan out who was I going to stay with, who was going to take me in and how many days and weeks can I stay at this person’s house,” says Montoya, 26. Constant worrying about her living situation and personal mental health issues were so stressful that she “flunked” out her freshman year, she says.
Housing insecurity – including homelessness, difficulty paying rent or utilities, or having to move multiple times – is an issue for students in colleges across the country, including the 23 campuses of the California State University system. According to a study CSU released in February on student basic needs, 10.9 percent of CSU students reported experiencing homelessness one or more times in the last year.
At least one-third of students at two-year colleges and 11 percent to 19 percent of students at four-year schools face housing insecurity, a study published in Educational Researcher said. The study, published in December, used data from four surveys conducted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and its affiliates and included responses from more than 30,000 two-year and four-year students at 121 colleges and universities.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid reported that over 58,000 students were homeless in 2012-2013, but experts say that number is an underestimate because the form is notoriously difficult to complete and requires proof of homelessness.
Barbara Duffield, executive director of the student advocacy group SchoolHouse Connection, explains that while federal assistance might factor room and board costs into a student’s financial aid package, there’s no designation specifically for housing costs. She says that students are eligible for a certain amount of aid, but the aid is not enough to cover costs for many students.
Instead, Duffield explains, schools and states are starting to address the problem themselves by offering “emergency grants.”
“When students have hardship, they can kind of fill in the holes or they can bring in the financial aid team to help re-evaluate the student’s aid package,” Duffield says. “They can do things like provide some temporary housing assistance through [the] community or relationships with different organizations within the community or even dorm rooms that are set aside.”
The CSU report includes steps the university system is taking to tackle food and housing insecurity, including designating a point of contact responsible for basic needs’ services and programs (all 23 campuses), providing or developing programs to provide short-term, on-campus emergency housing (16 campuses) and providing or developing programs to provide emergency grants to students (13 campuses).
In Chicago, students at DePaul University can turn to the Dax Host Home program, which places students in need with host families who offer them a place to live for up to 12 weeks. There’s also the Dax House, where four otherwise-homeless students are currently living.
Abe Morris, director of the Dax program, says an estimated 50 students who are homeless or housing insecure at DePaul University in any given academic quarter.
Other colleges partner with local organizations and businesses to tackle student homelessness. Tacoma Community College in Tacoma, Washington, has a program in conjunction with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide rental assistance to homeless students and their dependents. The program also offers case management services to help students find jobs.
James Baumann, a spokesperson for the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International, says housing insecurity among students is a regular topic of discussion at their annual conference.
“It is something campuses are becoming more aware of and they are evaluating their processes and services to see what they can do,” Baumann says.
The organization is also developing educational materials for member colleges to use.
“We’re certainly going to be launching an online course that speaks specifically to helping schools understand and respond to the housing insecurity and food insecurity,” Baumann said.
It’s an issue that’s even reached the halls of Congress, where Sen. Patty Murray, D.-Wash., introduced a bill in September to help streamline the official process of proving a student is in foster care or homeless and require universities to have a single point of contact that would assist students in connecting students with housing resources, among other services. A similar, bipartisan bill was also introduced by Rep. Katherine Clark, D.-Mass. in the House.
Resources like these can help homeless and housing-insecure students find their footing. In California, Montoya learned about CSU’s Guardian Scholar program, which provides career counseling, personal counseling, academic advisory services and financial assistance to youths who had been in the foster system. She eventually became a peer health educator for at her university, helping to guide students to resources like the college’s food pantry and CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.