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Many Students Are Young, In College and Homeless

Josh Anderson was working at an East Portland fast-food restaurant when he decided he had enough.  

“The manager there was really hard to get along with. My best wasn’t good enough,” Anderson says. So, the 20-year-old started thinking about quitting.

“I have enough money saved up to get through the end of the lease. And hopefully by then I can find another job,” said Anderson. He didn’t find a job, and three months later he was homeless.

At the time, he was a student at Portland Community College. Soon, instead of studying at the library, he spent his days looking for places to sleep. He dropped out of college.  

“I guess I got discouraged, with my grades really hurting from that, and you know, I just thought, you know, there’s no [point],” Anderson says.  

Across the country, stories like Anderson’s – where one decision or life event can lead to homelessness — are being reported.

College officials are finding more students who are living on the edge of a financial cliff, even in rural or suburban areas.  

Cherliyn Nederhiser says her office is seeing many more students who are struggling to keep their housing. The Lead Public Safety Officer at Mount Hood Community College, Nederhiser says her officers are passing out more 211 cards that direct students to local social service agencies.

It unclear how many more, but Nederhiser describes the increase in housing insecure students as “very noticeable.”  

“They’re on the edge,” Nederhiser says. “Maybe their financial aid isn’t coming through like they thought it was going to…they say the economy is improving…for a lot of folks that are marginalized, it’s not improving for them.”  

Nederhiser says she normally finds the students because they’ve acted out in class, or are showing signs they’re sleeping in their car. Nederhiser’s colleagues have been widely praised around campus for taking a proactive approach to helping students before they lose their housing.  

Yet, other than anecdote’s, it’s hard to gauge just how often this is happening, in part because homeless college students are hard to track.  

Experts say homeless students are more likely to conceal their situation to friends and professors. They’re also more likely to drop out, move, or live in temporary housing or abandoned dwellings where it’s hard to account for them.  

According to the U.S. Department of Education, some 60,000 college students under 21 have across the country have identified themselves as homeless.  

That number is compiled from data collected from FAFSA forms. Students who are homeless and under 21 don’t have to report their parent’s income when applying for aid.  

Because some students may qualify for larger financial aid packages if their parent’s income isn’t taken into account, many colleges require students to provide proof that they are indeed homeless.  

At one time, college student Cameron Whitten was homeless. He says when he transferred to Portland State University, the financial aid office required him to gather documentation proving he was homeless.  

“I remember having that letter and having to turn it into the financial aid desk, and the looks you would get,” Whitten says. “You know, some people looked at me like, ‘Oh yeah, is this person gaming the system?’ So that was definitely stressful and traumatizing for me.”  

While the federal government does not require financial aid officers to check homeless status, some financial aid officers say they worry that some students are indeed trying to “game the system.”  

“You know, I hear people say that, and I have to stop and look them in the eye, and say, have you ever slept on a park bench, have you ever slept on a roof top?” says Sandy McBrayer, CEO of the nonprofit Children’s Initiative.  

McBrayer founded a successful school for homeless students, and received the National Teacher of the Year award. She says the burden put on students to prove they are homeless does greater harm than the occasional student who may check a box to try and get a better aid package.  

“I don’t know what you would use to prove you live in a car,” McBrayer says. “Or an abandoned building. I don’t even know how someone could require you to prove it because no one is going to punch your ticket when you’re sleeping by yourself in an abandoned building.”    

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