Monday, August 22, 2016

Homeless in College

I don’t think I’m the target demographic for Glamour magazine.  I’ve never bought an issue.  Until the last month or so, I don’t know if I ever saw any content from one, other than a cover.  But recently, two articles took on lives of their own.  The first was President Obama’s piece about men and feminism, which has been amply discussed elsewhere.  The second was about Brooke Evans, a student at the University of Wisconsin, detailing her experience with homelessness while in college.

Her piece is well worth reading, if you haven’t already.  

She conveys several truths that are easily ignored or forgotten.

First, and most basically, “homelessness” is a blunt term.  The article uses the phrase “off and on” to describe her housing situation, and I think that’s far more common than we usually assume.  Something like “precariously housed” or “couch surfing” probably comes closer to the truth for many students.  They stay with one friend for a while until that becomes untenable, then a relative, then a friend of a relative, then wherever they can.  With every move comes missed mail, missed contacts, new stress, and the need to figure out transportation.  When those things are unsettled, it can be unrealistic to hold down a job long enough to climb out of the situation, even assuming a job is available.  Even many social benefits require either a stable address or “proof” of homelessness, however that might work.  (How would that work?)  If you’re sort of in-between -- you have a place to stay tonight and maybe a week, but nothing stable -- you fall between the cracks.

That’s an amazing amount of stress to pile on to the normal academic stresses of student life.  

Second, as Matthew Desmond’s excellent book Evicted and Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s $2 a Day noted, precarious housing also often brings with it unwelcome, untoward, and/or inappropriate expectations from those who open the door.  The compromises people have to make to stay alive can be demoralizing, which can make escape that much harder.  It’s easy for the otherwise admirable impulse to feel like you’re in control of a situation to lead to blaming yourself for the least-bad choices you had to make.  Sometimes, other people will pile on, hoping to assure themselves by their harsh judgments that it couldn’t happen to them. But the core of the problem is the situation, not the person.  

Third, and I haven’t seen much comment on this, Evans notes that being selected for an “honors” track early in life offered her hope that wasn’t otherwise plentiful.  It suggested that despite a challenging family circumstance, she was going to go to college and do well there.  That selection provided a sort of validation that was otherwise largely absent, and that she appreciated deeply.

That part sounded very right to me.  Especially in areas in which college-going isn’t simply the assumed background condition, there’s real value in the “tap on the shoulder.”  I’ve seen students perk up and improve drastically after nothing more than an acknowledgement that they’re doing great work.  It’s a kind of signalling that I’m not sure we appreciate as much as we should.  Sometimes students just need some sort of acknowledgement, or permission from an authority to succeed.  Done right, at the right time, that can be powerful.  I know we’re supposed to praise effort rather than talent these days, but sometimes being noticed as talented can provide an encouragement that can get someone through tough times.

Evans’ experience was at two residential campuses of the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse and Madison), but it’s recognizable at community colleges, too.  She mentions relatively callous treatment from counselors when she first mentioned her circumstances.  I can believe that, and I don’t mean that as a shot at any counselors; our collective understanding of student economic precarity lags reality by a longshot.  That’s exactly why articles like Evans’ are so useful.  We’re only beginning to understand just how many non-academic factors get in the way of student success.  Seemingly little things like moving to Open Educational Resources instead of commercial textbooks, or working with the local transit authority to get better and more frequent bus service to campus, can tip the balance.  When you’re skipping meals because you don’t have money, saving a few hundred dollars on books and being able to get to class reliably can be life-changing.

Evans is leading a charge to get EBT cards (food stamps) accepted for food on campus.  It’s a great idea, as is broader adoption of campus food banks.  Housing is a tricky issue at a commuter campus, but to the extent that we can help get other costs down, we free up more resources for housing.  

Conceptually, none of this is new.  Machiavelli wrote of the oak-lined study in which he could escape the chores of the day to commune with the ancients, and Virginia Woolf wrote of a room of one’s own with a lock on the door.  We know that study requires reasonable material security.  But I want to thank Brooke Evans for reminding us of what that looks like now, and why it matters.  There’s far more talent out there than is dreamt of in our political economy.  Hell, sometimes some good writing even pops up in Glamour.