College Students Plus Homelessness Equals?

Homeless_ImageWith Thanksgiving approaching, I offer this experience. I was walking with a faculty colleague across campus and I encountered a 19-year-old African-American female student that I had last year in class.  The young woman was well-spoken, well-dressed, and spoke intently about her current courses.  I wished her well and let her know she could come to talk to me if she needed anything.  As I continued on my walk I remembered that she took public transportation to campus and was never late or tardy.  I also remembered that this student had disclosed in class that she had been homeless at one time, grew up in public housing, and her family had been on Food Stamps.  She had shared with classmates, some of whom were nervous of working with homeless populations, that you never know who is or was homeless.  This self-disclosure forced the class to look at homelessness not as an experience reserved for the other, but an experience that can affect those who are close to you.

This experience shines a light on the economic diversity that we will most likely experience in the classroom and in the wider society.  Do we truly know if the person who is either in front of us or next to us in a classroom has a home to go to at night?  Do we know if that person has had a meal to eat? Although my student was no longer homeless, students we may encounter in the classroom are not immune to this situation.  Ted Gregory wrote in an article for McClatchcy- Tribune Business News from May 18th 2015, that there are an “estimated 56,000 college students nationwide who are considered homeless.”   We all may have our own preconceived notions of what homelessness is or what a homeless individual looks like, but we have to explore our biases and stereotypes.  Ted Gregory went on to explain that homelessness “covers students living in temporary, unstable situations, including friends’ or relatives’ homes, cars, shelters, parks, abandoned buildings, motel or bus and train stations.”

So what now?  Colleges and universities typically do not come with built-in social service centers to assist homeless students and their families.  Some administrators, faculty, and staff may find themselves ill-equipped to assist a student who is homeless.  However, awareness of situations may lead to the creation of initiatives to address such issues as they occur.  Of course this writer is not proposing that administrators, faculty, and staff go on a quest to find students who are homeless.  Students who are homeless may experience shame and unworthiness for the situation they are in.   Therefore, administrators, faculty, and staff should be conscientious in sharing information about a student who is homeless and check with the student about sharing their story.  Some may think that addressing homelessness amongst students is ‘not their job’, but it does impact the growth and knowledge of students. Isn’t growth and knowledge what the college and university classroom is supposed to offer to their students?

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