I was at a bar awhile back with some of my university friends, sharing beers and relaxing, when a homeless man approached us. He had a deck of cards, and was trying to entertain us for money. Everyone laughed him off, making the usual jokes about homeless people trying to bum change for drugs. I didn't say anything. After a few beers, I quietly excused myself. I had a curfew that night at the homeless shelter.
I was used to making exits like this. For almost a year prior, I had found ways to delicately balance my social life in college with the restrictions of being homeless, often leaving early from social outings with the excuse that I was tired or had to study, so that I could secure a place to sleep that night.
It's hard to know exactly how many college students in America are homeless, but an estimate from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) suggests that there are about 58,000 homeless students on college campuses in the United States. The actual figure is probably much higher, since many homeless youths try to keep their situation a secret. We are "invisibly" homeless, sleeping on friends' couches or falling asleep in the library, and staying at shelters and on the streets when there are no other options.
I became homeless during spring break of my sophomore year, when many of my fellow students were partying on campus or vacationing with friends. I was 20 years old at the time, an honour roll student studying philosophy and political science. I had been living with my grandparents, who took me in when I was a teenager so that I wouldn't go into foster care. But when my grandfather passed away and my grandmother fell ill, I had nowhere to live. I had no other family, and no money to pay for rent.
I go to a relatively small, public university in the Vancouver area. There are no dorms on campus, and rent in the area is steep (homes in Vancouver are among the most expensive in North America). Later, I would realise that my university offered emergency bursary for students in my situation—but at the time, I didn't know what my options were, and I was too embarrassed to ask.
Plus, becoming homeless in college was not a major shock to me. I had been homeless off-and-on during my early teens, before my grandparents took me in, and had learned how to hide my experiences. I would crash on friends' couches when I could, or sleep in parks. These bouts of homelessness were episodic, and I never knew when I would need to find a new place to stay, but I always made it work.
I figured that I could cope with homelessness in college the same way, and that I could easily hide it. I was wrong.
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In the beginning, I lived in a facility with social workers; then later, in a homeless shelter. I would wake up early for class, take the bus onto campus, and spend the day studying and working. I worked hard during the days, because at night, neither quiet time nor internet access were guaranteed.
Eventually, I moved into a transitional house, a special type of shelter that prepares people for permanent housing. Transitional houses are supervised, and the rules are strict: Drugs and alcohol aren't allowed on site, there are no visitors allowed, and there's a curfew at night. In order to live there, people have to be actively seeking employment or enrolled in school. The monthly rent at my transitional house was $375, more than half of the income assistance I received each month. That left me with about $5 per day to spend on food, school books, and incidentals.
The rooms in the transitional house were sort of like college dorms—there was a bed, a shelf, a set of drawers, and we all shared a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom—but the building was old and crawling with spiders.
When you're in the system, you don't get to choose who interferes with your life. You sleep wherever you can.
We each had a transitional worker assigned to us, who met with us periodically to check in on our housing and employment goals. There was also a property manager, who lived below us and made sure that we followed the rules of living in the building, sort of like a residential advisor. The property manager of my transition house went to the same university as I did, and she was studying for the same degree—we even had a class together. We had the same career goals, but starkly different paths. This was her job; this was my life.
Most university students live with roommates, some who party too much, sleep in too late, or prevent you from studying. But when you're in the system, you don't get to choose who interferes with your life. You sleep wherever you can.
Since I'm studying political science, the topic of homelessness comes up every now and then in my coursework: What do we do about the "homeless problem"? How do we change policies to improve conditions for the homeless? When this happens, I try to offer my opinion, but I choose my words carefully, to give myself distance from the subject. Most of my classmates have no idea the "problem" they are talking about was me at one time.
Great things happen in college. For most students, it's a whirlwind of drinking, partying, living without consequence. I will never know what it's like to experience it that way. Most university students aren't sure what they want to do after graduation, but there's something sexy about not knowing about your future when you're in your 20s and 30s. There is nothing sexy about not knowing where your next meal will come from, or where you'll sleep.
There are so many stereotypes about what it means to be homeless: People assume the homeless are lazy, strung-out, irresponsible, and incapable of leading normal lives. I've found the exact opposite. Being homeless forced me to work ten times as hard for my goals. While I watched other students absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook or shopping online during lectures, I had no choice but to focus. There was no internet in homeless shelters; I didn't have the luxury of studying whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted, and failing was not an option.
My best memories in college are the times when I saw friends who lived in the transition house with me on campus. Together, we laughed off the stereotypes, and we felt indestructible by managing our double-lives.
Eventually, I pulled my way out of the system: I got a job working at the university's student union, which paid $400 each month. I finally asked for financial help, and learned about emergency bursary and student loan options. Now that I'm in my final year of university, I work two jobs and live in an apartment with my boyfriend, who just graduated from the same school, and I hope to continue my education in law school.
When I was still living in transitional housing, I was elected to a position on student government. I didn't think I could have possibly been the right person for the job, but there is hidden value at being your weakest when opportunity strikes. One of my goals as a student leader is to give hope to other students who are without a home—because no student should have to go through what I went through without the proper support, inclusion, and resources.
If you are homeless student in the US, visit HUD.gov for information on federal resources and assistance.