College campuses see rise in homeless students
By: Lexy Gross, USA TODAY College 10/21/2013
"Though hard data are lacking, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid estimates that there are 58,000 homeless students on campuses nationwide."
When Tina Giarla finished her first semester at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., she didn't worry about getting home during winter break or buying new winter clothes.
She worried about where she would live for the next month, and where she would live once she returned to school.
Giarla is one of thousands of homeless college students in the U.S. struggling to find a place to live.
But the situation isn't new to her — Giarla has been an "unaccompanied youth" since her father died in 2007 and her mother was consistently in and out of jail. During her senior year, Giarla lived with her best friend and her family until graduation.
She lived on campus at Salem State until her resources ran out and she couldn't afford housing anymore.
"It felt like my past was just creeping up on me again," Giarla says. "I worked two-and-a-half jobs and went to school full-time. I had to save extra money to rent a hotel in the case of an emergency so I wouldn't have to go to a shelter. It wasn't a comfortable feeling."
She currently takes care of her grandfather and lives in his house in Salem.
"I didn't get to enjoy the college experience," Giarla says. "I had to make sure I was working and had a roof over my head. My primary focus was my education."
Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) says she believes the number of homeless students has increased over the last few years.
But she isn't sure, partly because there isn't sufficient national data.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid tells the NAEHCY that there are 58,000 homeless students on campuses nationwide.
Since colleges are not required to keep track of their homeless students, the FASFA form is the only significant data available.
According to the NAEHCY, many homeless students trying to go to college don't receive enough financial aid because they can't provide information about their parents or guardians on the form. Several pieces of legislation have helped remove the barriers between homeless students and financial aid, such as the recent Higher Education Act.
This legislation allows students to apply for federal aid without parental information or a signature. The act also allows financial aid administrators to designate a student as independent in extreme circumstances.
Duffield says the struggling economy is part of the reason behind college homelessness.
"Parents tend to start focusing resources on younger kids, and sometimes that can lead to abuse and neglect," she says. "Sometimes they just can't take care of them anymore."
"But for most students, they haven't had that support their whole lives," Duffield says.
Colleges across the nation are starting programs to help homeless students on campus.
At UCLA, if a student is affected by an economic crisis, the Economic Crisis Response Team will take measures to help a student stay in school. The team provides help in the form of meal vouchers, scholarship information and emergency financial aid assistance.
The NAEHCY also awards scholarships to students and assigns them a case manager to help them through college. The association also focuses on policies that help raise awareness among financial aid administrators.
Duffield says she thinks colleges are becoming more aware of the problem by offering counseling and starting programs such as on-campus food banks. In Stony Brook, N.Y., students who can't afford meal plans and don't qualify for food stamps can use their food pantry.
Giarla says she would've nearly given up if she hadn't reached out to counselors and professionals on campus. She urges colleges around the nation to become aware of their homeless students and reach out to them and offer support.
"There aren't enough services readily available or known, it's almost as if it doesn't exist," she says. "That makes it more likely to have an abundance of homeless students. It should be a lot more than just receiving money for basic costs."
Giarla plans on using her situation to help raise awareness of the growing homeless population at universities nationwide.
As a business management major, she wishes to pursue a career in advocacy against homelessness, and hopefully persuade legislatures to make a change in higher education.
"My experience keeps me going, it's made me who I am," she says. "These are the cards I was dealt and I have to play them in a strategic way."