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Diving Deeper into College Homelessness

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

A conversation to build bonds and a shared vision. 

Aggregate, often referred to the particulate mix added to concrete to solidify a structural bond, is a process of chemistry and connections. Too little or too much of a single element and the strength of the concrete is altered. When discussing systemic challenges, the right mix of traditional and untraditional stakeholders bound by a common goal is necessary to enact change. 

On an unsuspecting rainy afternoon in on September 20, 2018 a group of educators, homeless advocates, designers, and entrepreneurs came together to discuss housing insecurity and homelessness faced by college students. A brief intro and history into why and how kicked off the night. 

What did we learn about each other? 

Although we bring together a multitude of talents in our work, we are often narrowly focused in our mission and our ability to expand beyond is due to lack of time and resources. Systemic solutions require a broader approach and the ability to understand each of the contextual influences. Who are the key players for each of these influential pieces and how do we leave enough room for innovation, evolution, and if needed, expiration dates to initiatives? Can we be comfortable working on an initiative that will end as long as it moves things in the right direction? 

Moving to our personal motivators we asked: if you could not fail what would you do to correct this challenge? The answers ranged from developing equitable environments, educational system with both traditional and untraditional pathways, and a solid foundational platform to ensure success for current and future generations. We learned about our passions, commonality, differences, and the following keywords: equity, provide, environments, social services, home, community, housing, pathways, activation, compassion. 

What did we learn about the challenge? 

Armed with sticky notes, markers, and a wealth of knowledge we took our ideas to the whiteboards. So, what did we learn? This challenge carries a multitude of influences and will require a multi-disciplinary approach. 

Considering children constitute a large percentage of homelessness locally, how do we ensure future generations have a way to break the homelessness cycle?

Wage insecurity is a factor for some of the students. With the rising cost of property and the stagnation of wages, securing a place to live can be difficult. At our current minimum income, a student would have to work over 100 hours a week to qualify for the application. Yet there are other attributes that indirectly affect wages such as career choice. Personal passion can be an inhibitor, as sometimes passion does not equate to stability. Imagine your passion is playing video games, being on You Tube, or even being an artist. Are there any guarantees that any of these will lead to a career and a stable lifestyle? Is this something that is acceptable? How could we provide guidance to students, so they can pursue a career that provides both a fiscal and personal reward? Are there some hidden creative talents that our current model simply overlooks? 

What is the answer for apathy? If someone does not have a passion or the will to pursue anything what does this tell us? More importantly what is contributing to this? Some research seems to point to the influence of the digital age and the loss of interaction sacrificed for instant satisfaction. Is the internet desensitizing us from the world and if so what is the best means to address the problem? The Shallows, a book by Nicholas Carr, suggest the tools we use to get information have a direct impact on how our brains process information. The digital tools we use can rewire our brain, making it difficult to absorb information in more traditional ways. Does this require us to expand our cultural competency so we can accept a broader perspective of what can be and who we really are? If we dive deeper, we ask why the internet has become so prevalent in our lives? Could parenting be an issue? With parents working longer hours and an increase in single parents how do we create toolkits to ensure guardians can provide the best environments for their children? Considering even the small things like helping a child enroll for classes, fill out a job application, or do their homework goes a long way. Is a village model something we should consider migrating towards? 

Childcare is also a challenge. Not every institution provides childcare for students, making it more difficult for single parents to graduate. Additionally, the foster care system in Texas only allows for children to remain until they turn 21. What stress does this apply to a student and is it beneficial or damaging? For those that need the extra help what options are there? 

However, the largest piece of the challenge is addressing domestic hostility at the home. Based on the interviews we conducted having a physical place to stay is not always the main problem, although it must be said this is not true for everyone. Mainly it’s the hostility faced day to day at home, whether it be domestic abuse from a loved one, medical conditions, or limited funds and time that amplify any minor challenges (car breaking down, baby sitter canceling, and kids getting sick, personal sickness) into traumatic experiences. Currently, no local examples of hostility have been identified in the academic setting, with the minor exception to facilities closing early. 

When taken at face value how does homelessness get interpreted? As a barrier in itself how does the aggregated effect of race, criminal background, sex, and sexual orientation play into effect? When laziness and not trying hard enough are the key beliefs for many, how do we build a forum to understand what leads some to this conclusion, and build a common empathic language towards this challenge? When brought up in conversation most people are in disbelief that college students are homeless. How do we raise awareness to the truthful experience of homelessness versus what communities interpret? Assuming this is probably not a topic we discuss openly when enjoying social time with our peers, how do we make the discussion fun and meaningful? Considering children constitute a large percentage of homelessness locally, how do we ensure future generations have a way to break the homelessness cycle? 

Key Opportunities: 

Knowing how many students are affected is the first step. However, finding the exact number is difficult. Some students wish to keep their story to themselves and are afraid of stigmatization. How do we identify and engage these students in a genuine way? What factors create a safe haven for a student to share their truth? Should we consider training our academic staff to recognize this and if so, what are the defining traits? 

The state of Texas is coming down hard on universities to cut down on attrition rates, with the highest risk students being those that are experiencing homelessness or severe insecurities. As the path of least resistance there may be some benefit in developing programs directly at each institution rather than outsourcing from a third party. Given some may not have the resources to develop a program they should nevertheless be an active stakeholder to any program that would improve student retention and completion. Could the university be the catalyst for new student services and affordable housing options? It has been done in San Antonio with some success. Additionally, universities have suicide prevention and other student services, so bringing homeless solutions to the table would fit naturally into their current system. How does this translate to community colleges where the length of enrollment is much shorter? What new programs should we invest in to diversify potential and increase retention? Could we train students to be problem solvers in addressing this challenge and others across the globe? 

Is a typical real estate deal the best solution? Are we beyond the 200 unit block apartment? With technology and mobility do we need to look at a new housing system, one that favors flexibility and a broader investment base? Considering the sense of community, does a typical apartment or single family model cater to provide a stable and positive environment? As we discuss housing as a potential solution, another challenge arises. Where do you put all of it? With a rise of NIMBYism, doing multifamily developments, especially low income or homeless developments in inner urban or residential communities becomes very difficult. Additionally, housing is not the only core challenge at hand. How do we create a sense a community and what does it look like? Utilizing technology, could we bring the university into the community along with other essential resources? 

As development becomes more difficult, it is apparent the language around homelessness needs to be rewritten. Framing it as an issue or a problem gives a negative feel, and fosters the common narrative people come to associate homelessness with. Creating a forum to hold more in depth discussions will be key in helping educate and engage our residents. 

Finalizing the conversation, what other strategies could we look into? Could we use existing registration forms to gather data? How do we build alignments to universities and build a forum to capture the stories of each student and offer insight into the invisible challenges a university may be facing? Can we explore utilizing student organizations to help bridge the gap and have conversations with the students? Also important how do we identify these students and how to you train people to recognize them? Lastly, what other key players should be at the table? 

Adjourning for the night we leave with these questions. What does my organization or me gain from this initiative? Why do you find homelessness in higher education relevant? And if I could not fail, my solution to homelessness would be.... 

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