Homelessness and hunger a fact at community colleges, study finds

Jodi Roth-Saks (left) and Tori Nuccio in the new food pantry at West Chester University.

One of every three community college students in the United States is regularly hungry and 14 percent are homeless, according to a new study coauthored by Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab.

But the study found that even larger numbers of students worry about getting enough to eat and finding a place to live: Two-thirds are affected by “food insecurity” and half by worries over housing.

Homelessness among college students can mean they are living in a shelter, a car, or an abandoned building, while “housing insecurity” means they struggle to pay rent or utilities and move frequently. 

Billed as the largest study of its kind, the report was prepared by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, started by Goldrick-Rab, in collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees. It included a survey of more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states.

Among the schools surveyed was Community College of Philadelphia, where the student government association last semester started a “snack rack” for classmates in need. The pantry provides packaged snacks such as dried fruits and nuts, fruit cups, and Pop Tarts, in addition to microwavable foods such as macaroni and cheese, soups, and oatmeal packages.

“This is a really tough situation and there’s really no easy fixes here,” Goldrick-Rab said from Washington, where on Wednesday she will present report findings at George Washington University.

The report focused on community colleges because they are the most accessible and affordable, and serve nearly half of undergraduates, the report authors noted.

Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues recommend that colleges identify a leader or committee to assess student needs, and appoint a trained staff person who can serve as a point of contact for students.

“It’s hard for these institutions to bravely get out there and admit they have a problem, but we need them to,” she said. “Many don’t even have a food pantry.”

In addition to CCP, West Chester University, Rutgers-New Brunswick, Cabrini College, and Montclair State University all opened a student food pantry in the last year. Rowan University is opening one next week, and Penn State-Abington this spring.

“A lot of students were hungry and didn't have money for something to eat, but because of their pride they didn't say anything,” Troy Bundy, student government president at CCP, said in a statement last fall.

West Chester last spring began mounting an effort to identify and help its homeless students. At that time, the university counted 26 students who were homeless. Its nonprofit foundation began offering free summer housing to them, and the school found space for the pantry offering food, clothing, and other necessities.

Goldrick-Rab, who started at Temple last summer, has begun talking to Philabundance about developing support for hungry and homeless college students in Philadelphia, maybe even calling it “food scholarships,” she said.

“One of the things I’m trying to bring to the table to support them," she said, "is lessons from Houston,” where there is a program to help hungry and homeless students. She hopes to get a grant for people in Houston to mentor those in Philadelphia.

She said she would reach out to the Philadelphia Housing Authority about a program in Tacoma, Wash., where that housing agency is using federal funds to provide subsidized housing for community college students.

Temple will play a larger role in addressing the issues of homeless and hungry college students as Goldrick-Rab phases out her Wisconsin lab and starts the HOPE Center for College, Community and Justice at the university next year. A conference on the issue is planned for Temple this fall.

The problem of hunger and homelessness does not appear to be prevalent in any particular geographic zone, the report found. Rates were not higher in urban and high-poverty regions.

Former foster-care children appeared to be at higher risk of homelessness, according to the study. Rates were higher among female students and disproportionate among African American and Hispanic students, the study found.

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