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Part-Time Student, Full-Time Homeless


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Part-Time Student, Full-Time Homeless

Washington college students face homelessness in some of the biggest numbers anywhere.

June 27, 2017

The backpack Michael carries to campus is full of books and notebooks, things college students usually carry. It also often contains toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, soap, extra clothes — things most students would leave at home.

But this 19-year-old doesn’t have a home.

Over the past few months, he’s been hopping homeless shelters in Seattle, often packing up all his belongings each morning before embarking on an hour-plus-long bus commute to Everett Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree.  

“All of it is challenging… I feel a weight on my shoulders,” he says. “I have to walk at least an hour to two hours a day.”

“There are homeless people like me who are homeless because of an unsafe environment, who are homeless because abuse and neglect happened in their life,” says Michael.

Michael, who asked that his full name be withheld for his privacy, is transgender. He left his mother’s home because he didn’t feel safe.

“My mom was transphobic,” he says. “She told me that if I left, I couldn’t come back to the house... She told me I was disgraceful.”  

So, he left.

“I couldn’t be in a place where I wasn’t accepted for being my true self,” Michael says. “I couldn’t be at a place where someone pushed me to the edge of wanting to kill myself. I just couldn’t do it.”

He told himself, “Even though I might be going to a shelter, at least I might be in a place where people accept me for who I am.”

As a transgender person of color, Michael embodies some of the most sobering data on who is impacted by homelessness. Most estimates put LGBTQ people at less than 7 percent of the population. Yet a 2017 county survey found that 29 percent of homeless youth identified as LGBTQ. The same report found that people of color represent about 53 percent of homeless youth, despite people of color only accounting for 29 percent of King County’s total population.

“Often college students who experience homelessness… have an intersection of identities that contribute to the marginalization they face,” says Anthon Smith, executive director of Seattle Education Access (SEA), a nonprofit that provides higher education advocacy and support to King County youth, such as Michael.


An invisible problem

On campus, Michael looks like any other student as he walks the carefully manicured pathways between brick buildings. On campus, his homelessness is invisible.

“A major misconception [about] being homeless is that ‘all homeless people do drugs, all homeless people are bad,’” Michael says. “There are homeless people like me who are homeless because of an unsafe environment, who are homeless because abuse and neglect happened in their life.”

 

All of it is challenging… I feel a weight on my shoulders.

 

His experience as a homeless community college student has been a constant juggling act of trying to meet his own basic needs — coordinating between shelter schedules, finding food and transportation, attending classes and doing homework.

“There are so many tropes about homelessness,” says Penny Lipsou, an education advocate with Seattle Education Access who has worked with Michael.

While Seattle’s “tent cities” garner many of the headlines on homelessness, the people living in organized tent encampments represent a fraction of Seattle’s housing insecure and homeless. King County’s 2017 annual tally found a total homeless population of about 12,000, about the same size of many Washington towns.

But these counts don’t track how many of Seattle’s homeless people are also in college.

More comprehensive data is collected on K–12 students in public schools in order to help provide support to students experiencing housing insecurity. The data shows an ominous trend: Since 2006, the number of homeless children enrolled in Washington State public schools has nearly doubled.

When homeless students leave high school, the tracking and support disappear. The only measure of homelessness among college students is collected when students apply for financial aid. In 2007, Congress expanded the definition of “independent student” on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to include homeless youth, allowing applicants to apply for loans and grants without having to submit documentation of their parents’ income.

For people in crisis, the process of gathering financial aid documentation and figuring out how to pay for college can feel overwhelming. Even something as simple as providing an identification card can pose a challenge. Michael lost his ID when his wallet was stolen while he staying in a shelter.

“Being homeless, you don’t have a super-safe place where you can put your Social Security card,” Michael says.

Michael’s situation is not unique. Nearly 1,500 homeless youth applied for financial aid in Washington State in the 2015–2016 school year, making it eighth-highest nationwide.

Today’s needs vs. tomorrow’s debt

Most college students today have to take on debt to pay for school, and Michael is among them. He obtained grants and loans. But for Michael, the challenge of paying for college is often overshadowed by more basic needs like finding food and shelter.

“I feel constantly hungry because there are some days where I'll go like seven hours without eating,” he says.

But Michael’s situation may be becoming more normal. About half of community college students don’t have reliable housing, according to a new report based on the largest survey ever conducted of college student needs.

In addition, about two-thirds lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

 

 

Attending college sometimes disqualifies people from receiving food stamps and other assistance. To qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Michael needs to work 20 hours per week.

“But the thing is, it's hard to get a job when you have everything else you have to focus on — whether it’s housing, school, mental/physical health — that’s difficult,” he says.

“Being homeless is really a full-time job,” says SEA Advocate Penny Lipsou. “We’ve been trying to make sure that Michael is stable in other aspects of his life, so that when he is in school… he’ll be really successful.”

Michael is planning to transfer to Seattle Central College, which is closer to homeless shelters where he has been staying.

College: A changing landscape

Michael’s dreams are big — some might even call them lofty. He dreams of singing and playing guitar with a band he’ll call “The Remedies.” He’s interested in careers in the fields of neurology, psychology and advocacy. 

“Or, maybe I could be a teacher?” he muses. He has a hungry mind.

Students working toward their dreams through higher education, like Michael, face a different landscape than previous generations did. Ballooning tuition costs have outpaced cost of living more than two-fold. Annual borrowing has nearly tripled since 1990.

 

The federal Pell Grant and State Need Grant programs were established to help low-income students attend college without getting buried in debt, but any increases in grant money have been vastly outpaced by rising expenses, Lipsou says.

“Back in the day, folks could get financial aid that would help them pay for rent, that would help them with food and sustain them while they were in school,” Lipsou says. “Now, financial aid barely covers your tuition…. We just don't have systems in place to really accommodate students who are low-income.”

Adding to the problem are predatory lending practices, which often target low-income students. In January, State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Navient, an offshoot of student-loan giant Sallie Mae, alleging multiple deceptive lending and debt collection practices.

Ferguson also proposed the Student Loan Bill of Rights, with bills introduced in both the Washington State Senate and House.

The bill would create the position of student loan ombuds to hear complaints from students. It would also provide the State Attorney General’s office with additional tools to prosecute loan servicers who mislead or defraud students.

“These protections are two-fold — to assist students who have been victimized and to establish a deterrent to companies that would exploit students in the future,” says bill sponsor Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.

“This legislation won’t eliminate homelessness overnight. But this legislation will help those whose student loans might trigger homelessness or whose path out of homelessness is an education they cannot afford.”

Now, more than ever, college graduates are finding that acquiring a college degree is not the panacea it once was. But for students like Michael, these resources and incremental changes can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

“What keeps me going is seeing other people who have faced similar stuff as me,” says Michael. “So, I ask myself this… ‘What would future Michael want to be?’”

Future Michael would want to be empathetic and treat people with respect, he says. Future Michael would want to be educated. 

Article and infographics by Rory Graves. Video produced by Jen Germain and Stacey Jenkins. 

 


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The Federal Definition of “Homeless”

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” and provides  the following examples:

  • Sharing housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters
  • Abandoned in hospitals
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations or any other locations not ordinarily used for sleeping accommodations

Stacey Jenkins

Stacey Jenkins is the managing producer of Spark Public. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.

Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.

More stories by Stacey Jenkins

Jen Germain

Jen Germain is a producer with Spark Public. Jen is a graduate of the Film and Video Program at (the former) Seattle Central Community College, as well as a graduate of the Communications Program at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, CO. She completed an internship with Filmateria Studios and worked as a videographer with Pixel Dust Weddings before commencing working as a freelance production crew member and producer.

Fun fact: Her favorite TV show is Gilmore Girls, and she binge-watches the entire series at least twice a year.

More stories by Jen Germain

Rory Graves

Rory serves as the senior web editor at Cascade Public Media. She describes herself as a reckless optimist and can often be found hiding from her three kids in the closet while eating chocolate chips (which she aspires to bake something with, but never does). 

Photo credit: Will Austin

More stories by Rory Graves

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