Thursday, December 30, 2010

Homeless College Students?

When he isn't attending classes, chances are Christopher Sparks, 32, is hunkered over a computer in the library at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He's in his second year there, majoring in computer support and administrative network.
Sparks does not study at home because he does not have one. He sleeps at the Salvation Army's Harbor Light homeless shelter on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. His bed is a mat on the floor with 80 other men.
"I hate it, but I have to survive," he said. "I wouldn't wish this situation on my worst enemy."
College officials and advocates for the poor say the economic downturn has spawned a phenomenon they're only beginning to measure and understand: college students with no stable housing, who sometimes show up at homeless shelters.
It's well-documented that as the economy tumbled, community college enrollment rose as students put off going to more expensive schools and some of the newly unemployed went back to school. But those weren't the only groups attracted to community college as a refuge from the weak economy.
"It is a growing trend that people who are persistently poor and un-housed are taking advantage of programs at community colleges," said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C.
Statistics on homeless college students are hard to come by. A federal homeless survey does not determine who is in college.
An unscientific survey of 1,061 students this fall at Minneapolis Community and Technical College found that 9.7 percent identified themselves as homeless. Since it was the first such survey, there was no way to determine whether the problem has gotten worse. But those who deal with such students say they're seeing more of them and are looking for ways to help.
"We are talking about people moving from place to place, or a family staying in a basement with no bedroom, or some people who were staying in a shelter," said Ugaso Sheik-Abdi, president of a group called Wellness Advocates for You. Sheik-Abdi, a student, conducted the survey.
In 2009, 47,204 college students applying for financial aid checked a box that identified themselves as homeless, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. That statistic was not collected in previous years.
Because of the survey's phrasing, Duffield said, she believes the number is larger.