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Building Shared Awareness

Pathway: A collaboration to end college homelessness

We start 2019 on a crisp Thursday night. Laptop dusted off, projector connected, and lights dimmed, we dive into the conversation. A brief recap of action taken in 2018 gets us on the same page and we start our discussions on the issue at hand: college homelessness. 

So, what did we learn from 2018? College homelessness is a real issue and it affects people from all ages and from multiple backgrounds. More so the conditions that ultimately put each student in some form of homelessness is as different as each student themselves. Some experience domestic abuse, while others simply lose a job and cannot find employment to replace the income they lost. Others go through a house fire, while some flee the environments they are in, fearful for their safety or just tired of the abuse. 

Over the years Tarrant County College (TCC) has become a student centric college, focusing its mission on student success. There are food pantries at each campus, and multiple organizations including Catholic Charities and the Texas Workforce Commision have offices housed in different campuses offering their services conveniently to students. There are champions at each campus doing what they can to help with the immediate challenges within their realm to help. Yet given the complexity of the challenge there is still a great deal of invisibility. Take the fact that many employees, like myself prior to engaging in this initiative, do not know this is a pressing issue. Coupled with the low awareness about this challenge within the greater Fort Worth community this remains a mystery to most.  Before we can prescribe solutions, we must consider the amount of bureaucracy with an institution like TCC. Things often move slowly and with the recent leadership changes, priorities are guided elsewhere as the college’s strategic initiatives get implemented. Granted it is not a reason to halt the work, but rather an opportunity to find intuitive ways to address challenges without having to stress TCC for the resources. There are many organizations and entrepreneurs that could help address this challenge in the metroplex. Up to date we have been successful with getting a few students to sit down with us to share their story. We have been able to extrapolate some common themes in each of the stories, most leading to some form of hostile environment that leads the student to abandon their home. As 2019 unfolds we are working with the TCC to get a survey issued to every student at the college in the hopes to get an accurate snapshot of how many are experiencing, or are on the verge of experiencing, homelessness. The is a key first step to engaging with the college and other organizations. 

Reflecting on the recent shutdown, the current economy leaves us more vulnerable than what we sometimes believe. In a recent meeting with the food banks of North Texas it was revealed that there has been a growing demand for food from the federal workers furloughed during the shutdown. Additionally, crowdfunding campaigns have been used to buy basic amenities. If the economy is doing so great, why is everyone broke? If a government worker, a quintessential middle-class job, can't afford to miss one pay check, what does this really tell us about the state of our national economy? Though our living conditions have improved since the great depression, has the system evolved to secure a resilient middle class?  A middle-class family used to mean, one parent working, two cars in the driveway, a vacation, and a warm meal shared at the family table. College was affordable and getting sick didn’t break the bank. The middle class now is usually two parents working, a shared vehicle, and meal time being a bag of McDonalds. College is expensive and the cost of healthcare means most cannot afford a medical emergency, even with insurance. With the steady stripping of pensions, retirement has become a thing of the past. Currently half of Americans do not have anything saved for retirement. Is this a sign of vulture capitalism? As the amenities of middle class get eroded away, what conditions are we leaving behind for our future generations? As our worries focus around debt and the day to day challenges, what does this mean for addressing our long-term major problems? Problems like climate change, reducing our national debt, repairing our infrastructure, or this one? Will we and future generations have the bandwidth to focus on these daunting challenges? 

Seeing how the hostile environment is a key piece of this challenge, how do we gravitate attention towards it? Homelessness is the key symptom of this overarching issue.  Seeing how it is more nebulous in nature, how do we address the conditions that lead these students to become homeless? Seeing how some of these conditions the students are fleeing or struck by will take longer to address in full what strategies should be taken? Reflecting on current national economics and social stigmas, how will these affect their ability to get a job or a home? This makes me think of my personal struggles after I graduated, a freshly released professional ready to take on the world, followed by a huge market crash. I found myself in a weird situation where many of the jobs I applied for, Office Depot, Staples, Super Shuttle, and Kinkos, would not hire me because I was over qualified. Thinking on why we go to college in the first place, to get a competitive edge, to get a job, how is this justified? In addition, how many others face this same issue? I even remember being given a choice at my first job to either work full time and put college aside or quit and pursue my education full time. Luckily for me I had parents willing to take care of me so I could take on option 02, but what if I hadn’t? Where would this leave me, and would I have been able to complete a program as rigorous as architecture bouncing from couch to couch? 

Or is this thinking too broad? Should the focus be on homelessness? There are so many different conditions that lead to homelessness that some feel there is not a real holistic approach on addressing the hostile conditions. Homelessness is a focused mission, and from a marketing perspective is more of a punch of shock.  As we unfold some of the other conditions, the built environment comes up as a component that perpetuates the issue. It is blighted neighborhoods we forget, or the subtleties in hostile elements that prohibit certain people from utilizing public space. In addition, there are elements of racism, economic insecurity, food insecurity, classism, and even family issues. Are environments that house homeless people built for the human element? Seeing how some do not allow you to use a cell phone or live like a normal human being, can we say with confidence this is an acceptable condition? With limited resources in general how do we ensure that the environments these students end up in will help them? How do we help with the day to day challenges and the things they need right now? Are there ways to bring the students together to help with little things? Can we give them a place to talk to someone, a place to share ideas, an event to share food? Could we use a program like Clean Slate to help give jobs that are conducive for these students? What about marginally homeless and the economic insecure? How do we create an environment where they can build self-sufficiency? How do we go from living by the minute to living for the long-term? However, I think the big question is if homelessness is an acceptable condition? There are some that feel this will never truly be resolved. Personally, this doesn’t leave a great taste for me. I collect my thoughts on this and honestly do not know where a good starting point will be, but I embrace the uncertainty, hopeful of the discovery I will find on this journey.  

Some key takeaways include developing a series of events to engage a broader audience to discuss this challenge. Seeing how many people are struck with surprise and confusion when they hear that there are students experiencing homelessness in college, it is essential we build momentum through the stories of our students and discoveries made through conversation. We ask, how do we best create the forums to engage in intense and intentional conversations, especially with those that may not share empathy for those facing homelessness? How do we change the negative personal biases people hold towards homelessness? Should we bring in the police as part of the conversation to see if the laws are enforcing this stereotype? Looking at the recent success of the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter, how do we bring serious attention to critical issues like this? Additionally, as we start learning about some of the contributors to this challenge, such as the built environment and affordable real estate, what first steps should we take to investigate the broader system-wide solutions? Are we on the brink of discovering a professional evolution? 

As the moonlight begins to seep into the conference room, we wrap up our conversation ending with student engagement.  Students will play a key part as social ambassadors by being the core piece of support communities. This will create opportunities for them to help their fellow peers. It also works as a great vessel to get the attention of college leadership. We reflect through some of the stories the students have shared and ponder how we might be able to showcase them, utilizing the artist community. We look at the possibility art can offer in marketing this challenge in an unconventional and more interactive way. How do we connect with other student groups to hold more conversations, and could we do events involving multiple universities at once? Looking beyond TCC, could the University of Texas in Arlington's College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs be a vessel to allow architecture students to provide innovative solutions to some of the pieces of this challenge? Could we leverage this in conjunction with parking day to experiment with cost effective housing prototypes? All intriguing ideas. 2019 will indeed be a year of action. I am excited and thankful of those attending tonight and look forward to seeing what we accomplish this year.

Together we will do more. 

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