The challenges of being a homeless student

Originally published by the Daily Lobo
By Celia Raney

In 2013, FAFSA reported more than 58,000 college students nationwide were experiencing homelessness.

After the throes of a recession, Joseph Haynes became one of those students.

When he was laid off in 2014, Haynes realized he did not have the right experience to get a job in a post-recession market, so he chose to go back to school — choosing education over a place to live, a degree over a hot meal and a warm bed.

While all students are saddled with daily living costs, ongoing increases in tuition and post-graduation debt, homeless students also face issues of hunger, safety, and increased risk of sexual assault and overall physical and behavioral health.

As a diabetic, Haynes constantly worried about how to stay healthy while living on the streets.

“You’re pretty much not eating the proper food or a healthy diet,” he said. “Everything that you have to eat is processed.”

Professors and mentors helped Haynes through the two years he spent without a home, though asking for help did not come easily.

“I’ve been taught to be prideful all my life. You try to do everything on your own before someone else could realize what you’re going through,” he said.

Because it is embarrassing to admit the need for so much help, many students do not identify themselves as being homeless.

The FAFSA report — which shows that the number of homeless students has risen by more than 6,000 since 2009 — is considered reliable, but not accurate.

Colleges and universities are not required to document the number of homeless students enrolled in their institutions, meaning many homeless students do not receive the resources they need. Many campuses aren’t even aware of the seriousness of the problem.

“Since students may not come in contact with our services, or even identify themselves as being homeless, it is vital that we work towards an accurate state count,” said Benito Aragon, communications director for Heading Home.

Heading Home is a non-profit organization running several programs which seek to make experiences of homelessness “rare, short-lived and nonrecurring.”

“States are not federally required to track this number,” Aragon said. “As far as we can tell, UNM does not track this specifically.”

Trying to find food, shelter and a place to study, Haynes would often end up “so disoriented to the point where I was mixing up my classes.”

After one of his professors noticed that Haynes was writing answers for another class on his exams and quizzes, she reached out to him. Upon finding out he was homeless, she referred him to Heading Home.

UNM involvement

In the fall of 2016, ASUNM took notice of the growing issue after attending the roll-out of the “Two Sides to Every Story” campaign to build student awareness and engagement with student homelessness.

Shortly after the campaign began, ASUNM announced they would be starting a partnership with Heading Home.

Gabe Gallegos, communications director for ASUNM, said the undergraduate student governing body believes students could get behind the issue and make a real difference in the community by jumping on board with the campaign.

“This is an issue that does not get talked about, but we know it’s real and we want to start an open dialogue about it,” he said.

The University’s partnership with Heading Home aims to bridge the gap between awareness and action.

“The aim for this partnership is to bring forth awareness and education on the issue, identification of students experiencing homelessness and efficient services that are at student’s disposal,” Aragon said.

The Two Sides campaign was started to build a conversation about homelessness and financial disparity on campus, Gallegos said. The partnership between ASUNM and Heading Home aims to expand upon that.

“We want our community to consider that there are indeed two sides to every story and that we can never know the hardships that students are going through,” he said.

On March 21, Heading Home participated in a roundtable discussion in conjunction with ASUNM.

“Heading Home is currently involved in a collaborative effort with UNM stakeholders to assess the need, and the resources available, to address this important issue that so often goes unnoticed,” Aragon said. “We believe that no student should have to choose between housing and education.”

The roundtable discussion was “extremely promising,” and resulted in short and long-term action items including student awareness campaigns, identification of resources within the University, identification of staff who may have contact with students experiencing homelessness and educating them on resources available.

In the future, the partnership will work in conjunction with stakeholders statewide to create an adequate assessment tool and matrix of responses for students experiencing homelessness.

“Students bring a great deal of enthusiasm and innovative ideas critical for raising awareness and — more importantly — identifying possible solutions on campus,” Gallegos said.

The first steps of the partnership will figure out how to quantify the number of students experiencing homelessness at UNM, and will then focus on creating methods to prevent the situation from happening by opening new services, he said.

“You never know what someone is capable of by looking at them,” Haynes said, now living in an apartment, thanks to Heading Home. “It’s been a very humbling experience — I’m just doing whatever it takes to keep myself from experiencing this again.”

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