Homeless students invisible on college campuses

By Alexandra Kukulka

During the 2011 blizzard, dubbed the “Snowpocalypse,” most college students were busy partying indoors as snow piled up outside. However, one student spent those days huddled at a bus stop, trying to stay warm.

With his clean shirt and jeans, trimmed hair and bright smile, it isn’t obvious that Aaron James Flowers, a junior radio student who also goes by Jay Babii SwagLoud, was recently homeless. But Flowers is just one of the many college students nationwide who have battled homelessness.

According to FAFSA data, 33,039 college students identified themselves as homeless in the 2010–2011 academic year, and partial data for 2011–2012 shows there were 22,296 homeless students, as of July 2012.

“It was hard [being homeless],” Flowers said. “It was hard knowing that I was by myself, alone and nobody was trying to help me, and I wasn’t a bad person.”

Flowers said he became homeless during his sophomore year of high school when his grandmother kicked him and his family out of her house following an altercation. His family moved to a home in Waukegan, Ill., but they had to move out after six months because it was too expensive, he said.

Flowers said being homeless in high school wasn’t difficult to manage, although his friends were surprised he dressed so well.

“Being homeless doesn’t mean you walk around looking like a bum, or that you aren’t eating or that you aren’t showering,” Flowers said.

Flowers came to Columbia in 2010 and moved into the Dwight Lofts, but said he was kicked out shortly after an incident with his roommates. He said after he told Residence Life he was homeless, they suggested he move into the 2 East 8th residence hall, which the college didn’t own at the time.  Flowers said it was too expensive  and he was left with no alternative.

“There just wasn’t anywhere for me to go,” Flowers said. “At that point, I just did my best to stay off the streets and stay at school as long as possible, visit a friend’s house, and whenever people would kick me out, that’s when I left.”

While homelessness is an issue for many students, data on homeless college students is minimal, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Though FAFSA documents provide a record of those who identified as homeless on their application, Duffield said those numbers only represent a small portion of the actual number.

“There are very few statistics on homeless college students,” Duffield said. “In fact, the data [from FAFSA] simply shows how many [students] checked ‘yes’ to any of the homelessness-related questions on the FAFSA.”

Through research with the NAEHCY, Duffield said she learned that financial aid directors can designate a college student as homeless for financial aid purposes, but the U.S. Department of Education does not collect this information.

Duffield said if  homeless students indicate on a FAFSA application that they are unaccompanied, meaning they are no longer in contact with their immediate family members, they are given more support. The NAEHCY is also advocating to extend the age cutoff for “unaccompanied youth” from 21 to 24 so more college students qualify for aid, she said.

“This way, any youth who are verified as unaccompanied and homeless would automatically be considered independent students, and they wouldn’t have to scrounge around for [parental] information they have no way of being able to provide,” Duffield said.

Columbia does not maintain an official record of homeless students but does keep case notes, according to Mark O’Brien, coordinator of Student Relations in the Student Health and Support office. O’Brien said the case notes indicate that student homelessness is on the rise.

According to Nicole Amling, director of public policy for the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, a private sector partner working to implement Chicago’s plan to end homelessness, the Alliance is now including homeless college students in its definition of homeless youth for the first time to accommodate what it believes is a growing number of homeless students.

“Homelessness is not always the most obvious of social issues,” Amling said. “It’s not like we can look around a classroom and be able to tell how many people are experiencing unstable housing.”

It should be noted that the Department of Education defines homelessness differently than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, classifying it as “children, youth and families who have lost their homes and are staying temporarily with others or in motels.” HUD defines it as “single adults living on the streets and in shelters.”

Flowers’ homelessness became public knowledge when he shared his circumstances with President Warrick L. Carter at the student State of the College Address in March. Flowers said he believes he was standing up for Columbia’s homeless students but added that he might not have said anything had he known he was being recorded at the time. He said some people’s attitudes toward him changed after they saw the video.

“People started looking at me differently,” Flowers said. “People stopped inviting me to [events], people started to treat me like a bum, like I was disgusting.”

Flowers isn’t the only student at Columbia who has been homeless.

Devin Brashear, a sophomore art, entertainment & media management major, said he was homeless on-and-off for six years after being released from jail when he was 17 years old.

Brashear came to Chicago three years ago for a fresh start, from his hometown of New Orleans with $36 in his pocket, and he initially stayed at the Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter, he said.

According to Brashear, he noticed Columbia during a walk around the city.

“I felt like it made sense for me to be in school because I came to Chicago to create a new beginning, and a new life and to forward my music career,” Brashear said. “I never got discouraged about the money situation with school.”

Brashear is no longer homeless and lives in an apartment with friends. He is able to afford Columbia through grants and scholarships, including the Shawn Carter scholarship. For extra money, Brashear works in the Admissions Office and in a restaurant

Brashear said he believes that Columbia should create programs that raise awareness about homeless students, lower tuition and create student organizations that enable homeless students to receive help from their peers.

Students who become homeless are encouraged to call Student Relations to speak with a counselor about their situation, O’Brien said. The student would then be referred to a case management counselor at Inspiration Corporation who will help them find housing.

Columbia also puts homeless students in contact with Chicago’s Department of Human Services, which gives them food stamps, O’Brien said. The college contacts local food pantries and provides free food on campus, O’Brien said.

According to him, many faculty members donate clothing for homeless students. The Alumni Office helps these students get textbooks for free, while the library helps them find campus jobs, he added.

“There can be options, and there can be light on the other side,” O’Brien said. “Until a student takes that step, they are going to be stuck. We do all these things to help students in crisis.”

Jathia Macklin, a sophomore fashion studies major, said she and her family were forced to move out of their home during her freshman year of high school because her mother did not pay the bills. It was the last time they all lived together, Macklin said.

“From then [on], my family has been separated,” Macklin said. “I haven’t slept in a house with my brothers or [eaten] a family dinner in almost four years.”

Macklin went to Northern Illinois University in 2009 to study journalism. She lived on campus during this time but said she became homeless again in 2010 during her sophomore year because she couldn’t afford housing.

According to Macklin, while she was still at NIU, she was able to secure a more affordable apartment with a refund check for her dorm fees. She currently lives with her aunt and is waiting for the Chicago Housing Authority to help her find an apartment.

She transferred to Columbia in 2010 and said she received an $8,500 Parent Plus loan after talking with Columbia advisers. She also received a Pell Grant and works in the Art & Design Department to support herself.

Macklin also takes advantage of Columbia’s federally funded Conaway Achievement Project, a program that provides services for low-income, first-generation college students.

Macklin said she is the first member of her family to go to college. She wants to develop a mentoring program for young girls using her own experiences to help others dealing with the same issues, she added.

“By growing up in the projects, I have learned that you will only know how to live better if you are around people who show you better,” Macklin said. “If I didn’t go to the school I went to from seventh grade until senior year, I probably wouldn’t be who I am [today]. I probably would have been what my mother wanted me to be—and that’s a nobody.”

Flowers currently lives in a two-bedroom apartment and works in the Students with Disabilities office. After the college heard his story, it gave him a small grant to help him finish the spring 2012 semester, he said. He also received two merit-based scholarships for this academic year.

Flowers said some people question his decision to go to college. While this upsets him, he said he tells them he values his education above all else.

“Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a quality education,” Flowers said. “That’s my most important thing. I wanted a quality education that was going to take me into the future that I wanted.”