At least 57,000 college students are estimated to be homeless across the country, according to a survey of financial aid data.
And it’s a problem coast to coast. Last year, the University of California system said that about 1 in 10 of its students was homeless and 1 in 5 didn’t have enough to eat. A recent survey of Massachusetts colleges showed nearly half experienced a rise in homeless students in the last year.
Lorenz Marcellus knows what it’s like to do schoolwork in a shelter. The senior at Bridgewater State University in eastern Massachusetts lost his family home when he was a senior in high school. He lived in a motel before transitioning to a shelter.
“I remember after school thinking, ‘Where am I going to sleep?’ And it wasn’t easy. It was hard on me mentally,” he says.
The research on homelessness on college campuses is relatively scarce and most government resources go to younger children and students in high school, says Shirley Fan-Chan, who serves on the board of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
“This population is very invisible,” she says. “Not a lot of college students want to come out and identify themselves as homeless. They figure things will be better now that they are in college, getting a better education, and things should be OK.”
But often they are not. Fan-Chan and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Boston surveyed students who didn’t have secure housing, and found those students were more likely to fail courses and drop out of school.
The researchers say increased tuition and reduced state funding have contributed to the problem.
It’s a reality to which educators at Bridgewater State University — a school that caters to a diverse population of working-class students — are paying close attention. Inside the Catholic Center, Campus Minister Marlene DeLeon maintains a small, but heavily used food pantry. A few shelves are stocked with bags of pasta and canned vegetables.
“The need has increased,” she says. “I hear the doors opening. I see the food being used.”
Even though tuition at this public university is relatively affordable, DeLeon says many students can’t make enough at work to close the gap between financial aid and expenses.
The school is reaching out to students who’ve experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. The Bridgewater Scholars Program offers up to two high-achieving students a $10,000 scholarship that covers most tuition and living expenses.
Marcellus, the senior who became homeless in high school, received one of the grants. Some other students in the program are immigrants who didn’t have family support in the United States. One young woman became pregnant at 15 and got kicked out of her home. Junior Zachary Wright, a math major with near perfect grades, was forced to live on his own when his mother died unexpectedly.
“It’s really hard when you have had one main pillar of support your entire life, and they just disappear,” he says.
Unlike many of their peers across the country, these students say they know what it’s like to have a safety net that’s thread bare. For them the difference between failure and success might be a memory of a loved one urging them on.
“Sometimes struggle breeds confidence, and it breeds the fear of repeating it,” says Michele Wakin, a professor in the school’s sociology department who administers the scholarship. “There aren’t a whole set of people who have been instrumental in their lives. It’s one person who believed in them.”