By Eleanor J. Bader
Aesha is a twenty-year-old in her last semester at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. Until the fall of 2003, Aesha lived with five people--her year-old son, her son's father, her sister, her mother, and her mother's boyfriend--in a three-bedroom South Bronx apartment. Things at home were fine until her child's father became physically abusive. Shortly thereafter, Aesha realized that she and her son had to leave the unit.
After spending thirty days in a temporary shelter, they landed at the city's emergency assistance unit (EAU). "It was horrible," Aesha says. "We slept on benches, and it was very crowded. I was so scared I sat on my bag and held onto the stroller day and night, from Friday to Monday." Aesha and her son spent several nights in the EAU before being sent to a hotel. Sadly, this proved to be a temporary respite. After a few days, they were returned to the EAU, where they remained until they were finally moved to a family shelter in Queens.
Although Aesha believes that she will be able to stay in this facility until she completes her associate's degree in June, the ordeal of being homeless has taken a toll on her and her studies. "I spend almost eight hours a day on the trains," she says. "I have to leave the shelter at 5:00 a.m. for the Bronx where my girlfriend watches my son for me. I get to her house around 7:00. Then I have to travel to school in Brooklyn--the last stop on the train followed by a bus ride--another two hours away."
Reluctantly, Aesha felt that she had no choice but to confide in teachers and explain her periodic absences. "They've all said that as long as I keep up with the work I'll be OK," she says. But that is not easy for Aesha or other homeless students.
Adriana Broadway lived in ten places, with ten different families, during high school. A native of Sparks, Nevada, Broadway told the LeTendre Education Fund for Homeless Children, a scholarship program administered by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, that she left home when she was thirteen. "For five years, I stayed here and there with friends," she wrote on her funding application. "I'd stay with whoever would take me in and allow me to live under their roof."
Johnny Montgomery also became homeless in his early teens. He told LeTendre staffers that his mother threw him out because he did not get along with her boyfriend. "She chose him over me," he wrote. "Hard days and hard nights have shaped me." Much of that time was spent on the streets.
Asad Dahir has also spent time on the streets. "I've been homeless more than one time and in more than one country," Dahir wrote on his scholarship application. Originally from Somalia, he and his family fled their homeland due to civil war and ended up in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. After more than year in the camp, he and his thirteen-year-old brother were resettled, first in Atlanta, Georgia, and later in Ohio. There, high housing costs once again rendered the pair homeless.
Broadway, Montgomery and Dahir are three of the 44 homeless students from across the country who have been awarded LeTendre grants since 1999. Thanks, in part, to these funds, all three are currently attending college and doing well.
But few homeless students are so lucky. "Each year at our national conference, homeless students come forward to share their stories," says Jenn Hecker, the organizing director of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. "What often comes through is shame. Most feel as though they should be able to cover their costs." Such students usually try to blend in and are reluctant to disclose either their poverty or homelessness to others on campus, she says. Hecker blames rising housing costs for the problem and cites a 2003 survey that found the median wage needed to pay for a two-bedroom apartment in the United States to be $15.21, nearly three times the federal minimum.
Even when doubled up, students in the most expensive states--Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, New York and Maryland--are scrambling. "In any given semester, there are four or five families where the head of household is in college," says Beth Kelly, a family service counselor at the Clinton Family Inn, a New York City transitional housing program run by Homes for the Homeless.
And the Inn is not an anomaly. Advocates for the homeless report countless examples of students sleeping in their cars and sneaking into a school gym to shower and change clothes. They speak of students who couch surf or camp in the woods--bicycling or walking to classes--during temperate weather. Yet, for all the anecdotes, details about homeless college students are hazy.
"I wish statistics existed on the number of homeless college students there are," says Barbara Duffield, executive director of National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "Once state and federal responsibility to homeless kids stops--at the end of high school--it's as if they cease to exist. They fall off the map."
Worse, they are neither counted nor attended to.
"Nobody has ever thought about this population or collected data on them because nobody thinks they are a priority to study," says Martha Burt, principal research associate at the Urban Institute.
Critics say colleges are not doing enough to meet--or even recognize--the needs of this group.
"The school should do more," says Aesha. "They have a child care center on my campus, but they only accept children two and up. It would have helped if I could've brought my son to day care at school." She also believes that the college should maintain emergency housing for homeless students.
"As an urban community college, our students are commuters," responds Uda Bradford, interim dean of student affairs at Kingsborough Community College. "Therefore, our student support services are developed within that framework."
"As far as I know, no college has ever asked for help in reaching homeless students," says Mary Jean LeTendre, a retired Department of Education administrator and creator of the LeTendre Education Fund. "Individual colleges have come forward to help specific people, but there is nothing systematic like there is for students in elementary and high school."
"There is a very low awareness level amongst colleges," Duffield adds. "People have this 'you can pull yourself up by your boot straps' myth about college. There is a real gap between the myth and the reality for those who are trying to overcome poverty by getting an education."
Part of the problem is that the demographics of college attendance have changed. "Most educational institutions were set up to serve fewer, less diverse, more privileged students," wrote Andrea Leskes of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in the group's 2002 annual report. "As a result, we are not successfully educating all the students who come to college today. This means that nontraditional students--the older, returning ones as well as those from low-income or other disenfranchised communities--often receive fewer tangible support services than they would like.
"It's not that colleges are not concerned, but attention today is not on serving the poor," says Susan O'Malley, chair of the faculty senate at the City University of New York. "It's not in fashion. During the 1960s, people from all over the country were going to Washington and making a lot of noise. The War on Poverty was influenced by this noise. Now the poor are less visible."
Mary Gesing, a counselor at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, agrees. "Nothing formal exists for this population, and the number of homeless students on campus is not tracked," she says. Because of this statistical gap, programs are not devised to accommodate homeless students or address their needs.
Despite these programmatic shortfalls, Gesing encounters two to three homeless students--often single parents--each semester. Some became homeless when they left an abuser; others lost their housing because they could no longer pay for it due to a lost job, the termination of unemployment benefits, illness, the cessation of child support, or drug or alcohol abuse.
Kirkwood's approach is a "patchwork system," Gesing explains, and homeless students often drop out or fail classes because no one knows of their plight. "When people don't know who to come to for help they just fade away," she says.
"Without housing, access to a work space, or access to a shower, students' lives suffer, their grades suffer, and they are more likely to drop classes, if not withdraw entirely from school. I've seen it happen," says Amit Rai, an English professor at a large, public university in Florida. "If seen from the perspective of students, administrators would place affordable housing and full access to health care at the top of what a university should provide."
Yet for all this, individual teachers--as well as administrators and counselors--can sometimes make an enormous difference.
BR, a faculty member who asked that neither her name nor school be disclosed, has allowed several homeless students to sleep in her office during the past decade. "Although there is no institutional interest or involvement in keeping these students enrolled, a few faculty members really care about the whole student and don't shy away from helping," she says.
One of the students she sheltered lived in the space for three months, whenever she couldn't stay with friends. Like Aesha, this student was fleeing a partner who beat her. Another student had been kicked out of the dorm because her stepfather never paid the bill. She applied for financial assistance to cover the cost, but processing took months. "This student stayed in my office for an entire semester," BR says.
A sympathetic cleaning woman knew what was going on and turned a blind eye to the arrangement. "Both students showered in the dorms and kept their toothbrushes and cosmetics in one of the two department bathrooms which I gave them keys to," BR adds. "The administration never knew a thing. Both of the students finished school and went on to become social workers. They knew that school would be their saving grace, that knowledge was the only thing that couldn't be snatched."
-- Eleanor J. Bader had the privilege of teaching Aesha in the fall 2003 semester. In addition to working as an adjunct instructor, she's a free-lance writer and the co-author of "Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism."