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Reflections on Social Enterprises

Updated: May 27, 2020

What is college homelessness? It is simple enough to use any of the technical terminology offered by federal departments to classify the group. However, a unique definition came from one the students we interviewed. For this individual, the true meaning of homelessness is not just about having a roof over your head, but rather losing your support system. To lose everyone you hold dear or everyone that has your back. These powerful words have helped us navigate this unique and complex challenge and exploring to see how social enterprises might be used as a tool to address the myriad of factors that contribute to homelessness.

Social Enterprises are being used throughout the world to offer a business approach to solving human problems. Reflecting on some of the unique solutions developed globally and the potential for using a social enterprise to more effectively address the lack of affordable housing for homeless college students in Tarrant County, CoAct engaged a diverse group of participants in thoughtful discussion to dive deeper into the topic. Cobbling together three unique perspectives on social entrepreneurship we launch the conversation with the following definition.

A social enterprise is any entity using market driven practices to address a human problem. If addressed successfully, the enterprise radically changes how the problem is solved.

We explored using a work-study approach that could offer student labor to workforce partners for stipends to live inside a dorm. Looking at some of the major employers in the metroplex, it could help educational programs align student interns to a pathway to a career that offers a living wage and affordable housing. This approach could also offer residential properties a way to cover their day to day management and incentive action. The work-study has an interesting loophole that can use federally issued stipends to pay students without it counting as official income, giving them the ability to cobble together multiple and resources to cover month to month needs without having to worry about additional income disqualifying from using social programs.

The conversation moved to funding mechanisms like Pell Grants where a few participants recognized that these and other student loans seem to be a reliable source of funding for some. However, this proved to be a misconception as the grants often come with triggers that can make it difficult for some students to qualify. Performance for example is one of the main vetting mechanisms, which depending on the student's socio-economic factors can make this an unfair obstacle. A felony will automatically disqualify a potential grantee, which in the case of one of the students Tarrant County College worked with, made it difficult for them to find resources, a job, and housing. The grants do not always cover all the hidden expenses making it difficult and time consuming for college students to find resources needed to cover them in totality. Textbooks are also steadily increasing in cost which digs into a student's available funding pool.

The students are as diverse as our population, so it becomes rather difficult to put this challenge in one specific category. Some of the students are grandmothers working on a new career path. Some are single parents, others are returning vets, and some are aging out of foster care. Jumping between sleeping on a friend's couch, to sleeping in a car, or using a local gym to shower, the life of a student is hectic and unpredictable. Yet that said we also discussed how the students likely have a decent grasp on their financial management and are often more capable than we often give them credit for. It becomes a question of how we remove some of the structural barriers that make it difficult to achieve financial stability and allow an individual shift to a healthier mindset. To share the words of Amanda Arizola in her article How are we Funding Financial Capability“When a person moves from survival to thriving, they have the bandwidth to expand their financial capability in other areas of financial management like life insurance, savings and estate planning.”

We learned about Cornerstone’s New Life Center that houses men which also includes homeless college students. The center focuses on providing resources to align each to education and employment. We shared a story of an older man that went through the program and graduated at 60 years old with a certificate to help him get employment as a field technician. However, as previously mentioned, given the vast backgrounds each student comes from, understanding each story more in depth will help with creating the appropriate solutions. Given the New Life Center is based on meeting certain prerequisites, it may or may not work for some. This also opened some discussion on the potential of lucrative blue-collar jobs, which are in high demand. Discussing the idea of building dormitories for the students we explored if there could be enterprises developed to hire students directly to either install drywall, millwork, or any of the other scopes necessary to build a house? These could be tangible economic opportunities to align those most effected to be a contributing factor in solving the problem of not just housing, but lack of income, all while pursuing an education.

We celebrate the fresh perspectives being discussed, as our day to day jobs do not always offer new mindsets to foster new creative ideas. Taking a minor tangent, we explored hospices in Europe that have been used to help house youth. The facilities come with showers but also a hierarchy. In a similar vein, hostels and co-housing solutions have been used to provide accommodation in a shared facility that offer creative space for working professionals. Developed in both hotel and rental form, examples like Co Living, and We Live offer a niche and sometime pricey approach to this. Migrating to some local examples, we discussed the Taste Project and how it’s model could be used to help provide training to other professions, including caretakers, and home repair specialist.

We explore the possibility of using an academic program to build a new age co-working hotel to provide hands on skills in the construction, maintenance, and hospitality while giving students direct access to affordable living, wages, and practical experience. Seen as a living lab of sorts, these programs could be tailored to meet a myriad of needs ranging from housing to daycare services, each providing a much-needed resource for students, college staff, and the general public. This approach could also be used to develop a design build architecture studio at The University of Texas at Arlington and Tarrant County College that could help provide affordable housing options, while again teaching practical learned experience.

Mentorships comes up as a discussion point as we explore how we might create a workforce matchmaking group to help align student to prospective mentors. These mentors could help provide advice and open doors for employment. This could take a more ambitious approach at Tarrant County College to further engage some of the job fairs with co-curricular or practicum opportunities to help students get access to jobs. In addition, employers could be educated on the challenge, helping prime employers to be an active part in resolving this challenge. This information in addition to other resources could be shared at orientation through a central online platform, a site specific campus hub, or a student lead orientation team.

The stigma of homelessness came up as a challenge with a suggestion to re-brand the project to make it less threatening to the general public, using terms like transitional student, or at-risk student. Back to workforce opportunities, we kick around the idea of using a workforce pool that is collectively funded by employers across the metroplex to help subsidize rent and provide exclusive opportunities for the students. In Dallas, an existing program is training HVAC technicians.

Shifting back to homes, we explore the idea of doing additional shared living spaces that would match seniors with students, aligning residents with available space to students, or creating accessory dwelling units. With the accessory dwelling units, we explored how possible tax rebates or a stipend from a university could be offered to create incentive to development projects for purposes like this. The idea of recruiting senior volunteers to assist came up, although we were not able to dive much deeper into the idea.

Lastly, we discussed how a support system could be provided by aligning faculty, and specialty staff to help provide financial assistance and routing services to help students with their pressing needs. We explored some the work being done at Amarillo Community College in addressing college homelessness. Their approach focuses more on a mindset of creating the right environment for every student rather that the right student for each program. The question becomes how we create that environment at a holistic scale in DFW to serve students as they transfer from institution to institution.

There is still much to explore with this topic, and we have barely scratched the surface.  With the plethora of resources available, the challenge is how we clearly identify what is working and what is not, so we do not create conflicting solutions. Aunt Bertha rises as potential tool to aid in this as it is being used by many non-profits to identify local resources. We also question how we come to better understand the social economic factors so we can identify opportunities to address them. There are still many ideas and solutions that await to be discovered through additional dialogue and collective research. Wherever they may lie, and whatever they may be, it is our aim to find them.


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