Nafeesah Muhammad calls West Chester University home these days. She lives in a dorm room with a rainbow-colored Teddy Bear beside her bed.

She came to the university from Covenant House PA, a program for homeless youths in Philadelphia, determined to do more with her life.

"I think college is the best thing for me," said the 21-year-old sophomore, who wants a career in social work or nursing.

But it's been no easy path for the young woman, who left home and went into a shelter when she was in 10th grade.

West Chester University is trying to make it easier. The state university has been mounting an effort to identify and help its students who are homeless. Currently 26 of its 16,611 students are homeless - a figure that stunned outgoing president Greg R. Weisenstein.

"Once we found out that we had students who were in this circumstance, it was important to do something for them," he said. "These are students that, while they are dealing with all of these other issues - these survival issues - are still determined to pursue a degree."

The West Chester University Foundation, a nonprofit, has begun offering free summer housing. (Housing already was offered during other breaks.) Six students stayed last summer, and more are expected this summer, officials said.

The university also established a committee with representatives from student affairs, admissions, housing, and other offices to connect students with community services, help them qualify for maximum financial aid, and troubleshoot other issues. The school also is looking for space on campus to open a resource center with food, clothing, and other necessities.

"It's been like a real learning curve, realizing what these students really need and what the campus could potentially provide," said Tori Weigant, assistant director of financial aid and since 2012 the prime mover behind West Chester's homeless student effort.

West Chester appears to be in the forefront of colleges regionally in its effort to look for and provide help to homeless students.

Community College of Philadelphia, through its "Homeless Student Support Project," is another. It has helped more than 100 students since 2012, said Claudia Curry, director of the Women's Outreach and Advocacy Center. The college gives seminars on financial management, housing assistance, and other topics, as well as food stipends and clothing vouchers.

Nationally, about 58,000 students report on federal financial aid forms that they are homeless, but experts say that's not a true number, because some students don't reveal it.

"It's far greater than any of the numbers that have been presented," said Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

The definition of a homeless college student, said Lee, is someone not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian, who is under age 24 and who does not have a steady place to stay while not on campus. They could be living in a shelter, "couch surfing" in friends' homes, or staying in a car.

Homelessness doesn't wear a single face, officials at West Chester have found.

Muhammad said she and her mother didn't get along, so she left.

Another student left home after his father was jailed for sexually abusing his sister and his mom moved in with his grandparents.

A third was living in a motel room, where his family relocated after being evicted from its home.

Another was told to leave after she turned 18 by the people she thought were her biological parents.

"People become homeless for all sorts of reasons," said Weigant, who keeps a large bin of clothes under her desk.

It's important for universities to establish a single contact, she said, so that students don't have to tell their often-painful story more than once.

She's also trying to get every university in the state to establish a single point of contact so that a network can be developed.

"That way if a student calls and says, 'Hey, I'm homeless. I want to go here,' we can hook them up," Weigant said.

Locally, several colleges said they weren't aware of homeless students on their campus.

"We don't know how many attend," said Hillel Hoffmann, a Temple University spokesman, "but we know it's out there."

At Rosemont College, Alexis Whitt educated her classmates in a social problems course last spring. The then-freshman began a presentation on homeless youth with six portraits, including one of herself, and asked how many of them were homeless. At the end, she revealed the answer: Four. She is one, she told them.

"The entire class was shocked, including the teacher," said Whitt, 21, a forensic sociology/criminology major.

Whitt had been taking classes at Empire Beauty School and living with her mom and her mom's boyfriend. After an argument, she said, her mother told her to go live in a shelter.

Whitt is one of three homeless students at Rosemont that school officials know of. The college allows the students to stay in housing over breaks and offers them employment in the summer, which includes housing, said Troy Chiddick, dean of students.

Colleges locally are a "mixed bag" when it comes to handling homeless students, said John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House PA, which helped 2,500 homeless youth last year.

"There are some colleges that are starting to take this seriously and some that don't recognize this is an issue," he said.

Advocates help, he said.

Covenant House staff helped Muhammad with her college essays and application. Victor Gimenez, its education specialist, accompanied her on her first visit to West Chester.

"They basically did everything a parent would do," Muhammad said.

Gimenez said he was heartened by Muhammad's determination.

"That young lady is very resourceful," he said. "I appreciate her resilience."

He also spoke highly of Whitt, the Rosemont student, who stayed at Covenant House, too.

Muhammad works 25 hours a week at Taco Bell and 10 hours in a biology lab on campus, in addition to her studies. She pays tuition and fees with federal and state aid and covers housing and meals with federal loans. She's saving money, she said, for a house and car, and using the rest for clothes and personal items.

Financial management is important to her. She inquired about taking a course when she enrolled.

"That's very rare," Weigant said. "It's nice to see that financial independence."

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