Coronavirus pandemic exacerbates challenges for homeless college students

Some low-income students struggle with housing, food and mental health.

May 6, 2020, 3:48 PM

Liam Spady, a student at the Community College of Philadelphia, struggled with homelessness --"couch surfing" on friends' sofas at night as he studied by day for his culinary arts degree.

The 22-year-old said that before the coronavirus swept the city, he relied on college resources like his on-campus food pantry for meals and snacks, but since the pandemic's fallout, he is dependent on his credit card to meet those basic needs.

And without the quiet safe-haven that his campus provided, Spady told ABC News that even studying has become more challenging as he adjusts to finishing his last semester. Spady who said he went into ​foster care at age 16 when he was removed from his mother's home, is now temporarily back in that home with a mix of relatives coming and going at all hours. It's often noisy, which makes it tough to study.

"I would sometimes do my work on campus," he said. "At home, people are not as in tune with like the whole, going to college thing is not the same so doing my work on campus is easier. I have my peers around it just flows much better. And that has drastically been changed because of coronavirus related shutdowns."

The soon-to-be culinary arts graduate will earn his Associates’ degree on Friday and said he has been accepted to a transitional housing program. He plans to apply for state grants that will allow him to transfer to a four-year university in the fall to earn his Bachelor’s degree. However, he made it clear that having access to the necessary funding will ultimately determine his ability to continue his education.

In the meantime, as a staffer at the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, he is keenly aware that for students like him the next phase of the education journey will be especially tough amid the pandemic.

“There’s already a lot of stress when it comes to young people who are homeless and in school because you have to worry about where you're going to stay and if it's safe,” Spady said.

PHOTO: Liam Spady, a 22-year-old student at the Community College of Philadelphia, visited Capitol Hill to advocate for continued funding for the Youth Homelessness Demonstrations Projects initiative at the House Appropriations Committee, Sept. 5, 2019.
Liam Spady, a 22-year-old student at the Community College of Philadelphia, visited Capitol Hill alongside his colleagues from the Youth Collaboratory to advocate for continued funding for the Youth Homelessness Demonstrations Projects initiative at the House Appropriations Committee, Sept. 5, 2019.
Courtesy Liam Spady

As colleges and universities around the country shut down campuses and dormitories under coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders, the cost comes at a steep price for low-income and homeless students who rely on on-campus resources to get through school. Further, students on the cusp of graduation in the next few weeks face an uncertain economic future amid record unemployment and uncertain job prospects--the very kind of work needed to help them net and pay for food and housing.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founding director of The Hope Center for College Community and Justice, a Temple University-based research group focused on college students' needs, said as soon as the pandemic hit, her organization started hearing from students whose schools were closing.

“What I really wish people knew is that students who are so-called housing insecure people, who have trouble paying their rent, people who have trouble paying their utility bills, people who might just be late on a payment or are living in overcrowded conditions that are not safe -- These people often look like me,” said Goldrick-Rab, who is also a professor at Temple University.

“Everybody thinks this only happens to somebody else’s child. The truth is, this can happen to anybody. Rent is really unaffordable now, and it’s even less affordable around college campuses.”

With schools closing dorms, students have begun to file class-action lawsuits as a way to try and be reimbursed. In addition to the growing number of lawsuits, many universities -- including some of the country's most selective and expensive private schools -- are facing mounting public pressure campaigns from students to cut tuition rates during the hiatus from in-person classes.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, which operates some programs for the U.S. Department of Education, more than a million children and youth face homelessness and those students meet with greater obstacles when they attend college. Many of these students "struggle to provide for their basic needs. They often maintain rigorous work schedules that impact the amount of time they can devote to their studies. A particular challenge exists during breaks at residential colleges and universities, when dormitories close. During these times, unaccompanied homeless students living in the dorms often have nowhere to go and insufficient funds to pay for housing," the report found.

PHOTO: In this April 25, 2019, file photo, students sit on the lawn near Royce Hall at UCLA, in the Westwood section of Los Angeles.
In this April 25, 2019, file photo, students sit on the lawn near Royce Hall at UCLA, in the Westwood section of Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong/AP, FILE

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have led to many colleges and universities closing on-campus operations, forcing many students to find an alternative place to live for the remainder of the semester and without on-campus services.

For Marcella Middleton, a mother and first-year graduate student at North Carolina State University, the coronavirus pandemic has threatened the stability she has worked to provide for herself and her son.

Housing insecurity is not new to her. Coming out of foster care, Middleton faced homelessness throughout her undergraduate career, telling ABC News she would work on campus in between semesters to have a place to stay.

The pandemic's subsequent shut-down meant that she was forced to telework and work reduced hours. The cut in pay put a drain on her finances and forced her to apply for rental assistance.

“I got to a place where I didn't need to ask for much help and now I'm having to do it again, so that's been difficult. But I know that I need help and I know I have to make sure my son is taken care of,” Middleton said.

The 28-year-old has relied on resources like on-campus therapy, a benefit she says has been instrumental to her success as she earns her Master's degree in social work. However, Middleton says in-person counseling has become temporarily unavailable as North Carolina State University's Community Counseling, Education, and Research Center has now transitioned to online video counseling in response to social distancing recommendations.

“As somebody who experienced a lot of trauma growing up, I really put a lot of stake in the mental health services that are rendered at the college because they're free and they come with the package of going to college. And, so, not having access to that has been really difficult because that's a necessary outlet for my consistent success,” Middleton said, adding that she’s now looking into the online alternative.

Marcy Stidum is the director of Campus Awareness, Resource, and Empowerment (CARE) Services at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. CARE Services offers four programs, including support for students experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and the foster care system.

When campus closed, “the initial wave was students who had nowhere to go and were completely homeless,” Stidum said, describing the situation since as a “very continuous rollercoaster ride.”

Stidum said that about 300 students were able to stay on campus after the initial influx.

“That includes international students. That includes our LGBT community who cannot go home. Our domestic violence and family violence community and our students also who were homeless in high school who are actively homeless,” she said.

“So, all those students had nowhere to go, and it comprised about 300 to 400 students.”

Now, she said, they are seeing the “second wave” -- students who are unable to work and have become housing insecure, which Stidum described as “a step right before homelessness.”

The emergency assistance program, which CARE Services oversees, is working to help students with rental assistance using federal funding through the recently passed CARES Act, Stidum said.

“But then for some students, it's not enough,” she added.

As part of the federal stimulus package, on April 9, the Department of Education announced it was distributing more than $6 billion to colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which once allocated by schools through cash grants, is intended to go toward students’ various needs during the pandemic, including food, housing, health care, and childcare.

“What’s best for students is at the center of every decision we make,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “That’s why we prioritized getting funding out the door quickly to college students who need it most. We don’t want unmet financial needs due to the coronavirus to derail their learning.”

In addition to federal aid, some groups have been working to crowdfund emergency relief money for students. Goldrick-Rab said this was a priority for her group.

When COVID-19 forced students off-campus, Goldrick-Rab said she started hearing from students and schools struggling to figure out the next steps.

Not only were schools worried about students in residence halls when they closed their doors, but they were also worried about students who lived off-campus who might lose their jobs and not have the means to pay rent, “or were being told that they had to leave and go home even though they were locked into leases,” she said.

“Homelessness in America is often an invisible problem because we think it means that somebody lives on the street or they sleep in a tent,” Goldrick-Rab said. “But more often than not, especially for people who are pursuing an education, they’re actually couch-surfing."

For Middleton, the pandemic has highlighted the need for policy changes to better support college students who are facing homelessness.

"This is a perfect time to really try to support young people that are experiencing housing instability, especially in the midst of COVID-19," she said. "This is something that has been going on and the inclusion of young people in the planning stage has not been happening."

Editor's Note: The story has changed to clarify that Liam Spady who said he went into ​foster care at age 16 when he was removed from his mother's home, is now temporarily back in that home. He has been accepted to a city-funded transitional housing program. A previous version stated that he is currently living in city-funded transitional housing.

This report was featured in the Friday, May 22, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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