Consider the homeless on campus

By Kyra Sadovi, Columnist

As students across campus brace ourselves for the sub-zero temperatures brought by the polar vortex this week, it is important to consider the implications this extreme weather will have on the homeless population in Urbana and Champaign — including students who find themselves with housing insecurity. Student homelessness is an underreported and often ignored issue on every college campus, and this week’s freezing forecast is more than enough reason to turn our attention to the problem.

The number of students with some form of housing insecurity at two- and four-year colleges and universities is surprisingly high and rose in 2018. A study published in early April by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 46 percent of surveyed students at two-year colleges and and 36 percent of students at four-year colleges had experienced some form of housing insecurity in the preceding year — that includes categories from difficulty paying utilities to moving in with others, or “couch-surfing.”

Even more surprisingly, the same study found that homelessness presented a formidable threat to students at the same universities. It found that 12 percent of community college students and nine percent of University students have found themselves at varying levels of homelessness in 2018. That label includes categories like students who stay in shelters, cars or don’t know where they will stay on a given night. While very few went completely unsheltered, most respondents who reported homelessness said that they were not sure where they would sleep every night.

This vulnerability is clearly a huge detriment to students who face this kind of financial obstacle. But while it surely makes studying and, frankly, survival more difficult on a day-to-day basis, extreme cold fronts like this Wednesday’s make their situations more dire. With a predicted wind chill nearing 40 degrees below zero, the National Weather Service is advising all people to stay warm, warning that the weather can bring on frostbite within ten minutes of skin being exposed.

If classes are cancelled on Wednesday, then most of us University students won’t have to brave the elements trudging from building to building. But not an insignificant portion of us will have to think a little harder about how to stay warm. While the University provides community resources for students facing housing insecurity, there is no University-run program to help ensure that students have a place to stay during the school year. And while financial aid helps, it is often not enough. In fact, the survey found that students who received the Pell Grant, one of the biggest federally funded need-based scholarships, “were more likely to experience food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness.”

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It’s also very difficult for students facing housing insecurity to obtain federal assistance. The Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal program that awards exemptions on taxes for working low-income people, reward high numbers of work hours. Similarly, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal food assistance program, requires a minimum of 20 working hours per week to qualify. These requirements make qualifying for federal assistance very difficult for college students who have to balance jobs with studying and attending class. It further emphasizes the need for programs from the University.

Given that housing insecurity is a reality for many students across the nation, it’s important that we at the University be aware of how we can help. The Hope Center notes that students are often in good positions to help their peers when it comes to finding solutions to housing and food insecurity. A large number of existing food pantries across the country are student-run and are a huge asset for students in need of food. Further, it’s important for the University to do internal research to find just what percentage of our student body needs housing assistance. Most importantly, the Hope Center recommends that students pay attention to their friends — if someone needs somewhere to stay, especially in this dangerous weather, lend a helping hand.

Housing resources in the CU community can be found here.

Kyra is a sophomore in LAS.

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