Why you should care
One of America's most serious housing crises isn't where you expect.
After attending sociology classes all day at Humboldt State University on the Northern California coast, Chant’e Catt didn’t return to a dorm or an apartment. She slept in a gray minivan.
The 37-year-old Los Angeles native had sold a business and says she’d maintained a sparkling rental history and a strong credit score. But HSU doesn’t guarantee on-campus accommodations to students, who must navigate an air-tight housing market. Catt had been scouring options since transferring from community college in Redding more than a year earlier. She finally moved into her own place in December 2016, about 45 miles from campus, with her 1 1/2-year-old daughter, partner and two dogs.
At HSU, she now works as an off-campus housing coordinator. In this first-of-its-kind role within the California State University system, she maintains an inventory of housing availability, helps students find homes and gathers data on a food and housing insecurity crisis that’s intensifying on her campus and nationwide. Roughly 1 in 10 college and university students experienced homelessness in the previous year, according to 2018 research by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (now the Hope Center). About 1 in 3 were facing uncertain access to safe and affordable housing. This comes as students from low-income backgrounds now enroll in college at a higher rate than those from middle-class families, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
There’s definitely stigma associated with homelessness … college is associated with privilege.
Rashida Crutchfield, California State University
But a growing number of universities are developing and launching programs to fill these gaps. Catt’s role was created in 2017, and other CSU campuses are starting to design similar positions, she says. Launched in 2015, an initiative called the Dax Program has helped provide housing to 47 DePaul University students in Chicago at risk of homelessness. Only three of them left school without graduating.
Massachusetts created a pilot program this year to pair community college students with available dormitory beds at nearby universities. Washington’s local housing authority has partnered with the University of Washington, Tacoma, to subsidize micro-units for students experiencing homelessness, and with Tacoma Community College to offer rental vouchers. “A lot of universities are making quick wind of the progress as they identified the problems,” says Catt.
Experts say financial aid packages haven’t kept pace with the dual rising costs of living and of a college degree — combined with growing student loan debt and a nationwide housing squeeze. “It’s just kind of a perfect storm … [that creates] this mess that we’re seeing now,” says Emily Edwards, Chicago program director of Depaul USA, a nonprofit focused on college homelessness and housing insecurity. Students who don’t have “that safety net of a family that can afford housing” find themselves barely scraping by, Edwards says.
Many in the general public are shocked to learn college homelessness is a problem at all, experts say. “There’s definitely stigma associated with homelessness … college is associated with privilege,” says Rashida Crutchfield, a social work professor at California State University, Long Beach, who co-authored a landmark basic needs study across the CSU system in 2018.
But people are eager to assist once they become aware, Edwards says. Some even open up their doors: In addition to two houses run by the Dax Program, there are host homes where Chicago residents provide bedrooms for DePaul students. And public consciousness is growing as research from organizations like CSU and the Hope Center illustrates the problem’s scope, substantiating the need for colleges to track their own metrics — and intervene fast.
Even at private schools that guarantee on-campus housing, students can be without housing over semester breaks — and some argue there’s more stigma and less awareness in elite environments. But private entities are starting to take up the mantle: In November, Airbnb announced a first-of-its-kind pilot partnership with the Bill Wilson Center, a San Jose-based nonprofit, that will allow students who qualify as unstably housed or homeless in Santa Clara County to book rentals otherwise used by businesses for their employees. It will be tested during this winter recess. BWC will use state funding to pay for student housing subsidies, while Airbnb will waive its fees.
Case managers will monitor whether students stay housed and in school, says Sparky Harlan, CEO of the BWC. “If we put somebody in [an] Airbnb, we’re going to want to make sure it’s a successful … placement. It’s not just a hotel room,” says Harlan, adding that BWC will support food access while school pantries are closed. Harlan will welcome a student into her San Jose house this month.
Other private institutions are devising ways to ease pressure on the housing market in surrounding localities. Stanford — Silicon Valley’s largest landowner — guarantees on-campus housing to undergraduates but not to graduate students. While more than 60 percent of graduate students currently live on campus, that figure will rise to 75 percent when a new housing complex opens in fall 2020. This will also free up the off-campus units they occupied for local renters, says E.J. Miranda, Stanford’s senior director of media relations.
It’s likely to take time before these initiatives become the norm at private schools. Research on the issue is still nascent. But while there’s no universal mode of tracking across higher education like federal point-in-time counts, other state school systems could learn from the CSU system. The Department of Education could also mandate such data collection and tie it to federal funding, as it does with campus crime information under the Clery Act — though that would require sufficient political will. Catt says some people challenge the legitimacy of student homelessness, suggesting that acts like couch surfing are normal rites of passage.
Still, the universities, nonprofits and private companies driving these new efforts are showing that fast solutions are possible and scalable. “I don’t think anybody thinks this is going to happen to them,” says Catt. “When [students are] … trying to attain these goals and the supports aren’t there, you just end up feeling hopeless.”
“It’s not through lack of agency,” she says. “It’s because our systems are broken.”