Homework but no home: Colleges struggle to help homeless students

Walking downtown
William Menday, 22, walks to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis, June 12, 2014. Menday, a former student at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, is homeless, but he said he is trying to stabilize his life so he can return to college and graduate.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Late to the homeless shelter one winter night, William Menday couldn't get a bed, so he spent the evening riding light rail and buses around the Twin Cities just to stay warm.

And he still had to finish a paper for class the next morning.

Life as a homeless college student eventually took its toll. Burned out and still broke after a few semesters, Menday dropped out of Minneapolis Community & Technical College in 2012. He does odd jobs now, hoping to earn enough to stabilize his life and finish his education.

College can be a hard course for anyone, but it's doubly difficult for students who must grapple with school and find a place to sleep each night. Menday was among an estimated 2,500 Minnesota students in college and homeless. It's a group that goes largely unnoticed and unaided on campuses.

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State officials want to change that. College administrators gathered recently to talk over how to support homeless students. Keeping them in school and earning a degree or certificate is good for Minnesota, said Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller. If the state can help them succeed, it will pay dividends later on, he added.

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Homeless students tend to gravitate toward community colleges because those campuses are more prevalent and often located near social-service agencies that can meet students' basic needs, said Jarrett Gupton, a University of Minnesota professor who studies the matter.

Those students may be in difficult circumstances, but homeless advocates say they have typical teenage aspirations.

"They're your average young person," said Frances Roen of YouthLink, a nonprofit organization serving homeless youths in the Twin Cities. "When you ask them what are their hopes and dreams for the future, their [answer] would look exactly the same as any 17- or 18-year-old across America."

YouthLink and other agencies are often key to getting the students into college. Staffers there tell youths about college opportunities, help them fill out college application and financial-aid forms, and help arrange nearby campus tours and meetings with advisers. YouthLink also provides food, clothing, lockers and a mailbox.

College often holds more appeal than employment, Gupton added. Many homeless youths figure they'd get only low-wage, dead-end jobs on the labor market, and see higher education as a ticket out of their plight.

Once they've enrolled, however, the real struggle begins. Dropping out — even if only for a few months — is all too common among the homeless. Their graduation rates are in the single digits, Gupton estimated — far below the statewide graduation/transfer average of 52 percent for community-college students and 63 percent graduation rate for university students.

Even temporary homelessness during college "creates a shock that really ramps up the risk that you'll never finish your degree," Pogemiller said.

Will Menday
William Menday, 22, said he has been homeless since the age of 17. Originally from Liberia, Menday is now couch hopping and staying with friends.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

At a homeless forum at the University of Minnesota earlier this month, one group of education officials suggested building special youth shelters, so that students such as Menday can live in safer conditions.

Menday recalled the struggles of life at a regular shelter: dealing with noise, fights and bedbugs, being urinated on by a drunk, and fending off a man who tried to fondle him while he slept.

Under such conditions, he said, "you're out of it. You want sleep...I'll try to read a book, but my eyes are too heavy. Most of the time you're like a zombie."

Roughly 58,000 college students across the nation are homeless, Gupton said. It's difficult to get an exact count, advocates for the homeless say, because they have no residence and often don't tell anyone of their situation.

Other states have been experimenting with waiving tuition for homeless students or giving those attending universities priority when it comes to getting into student dorms, Gupton added.

Some U.S. colleges have established food banks, or started centers where homeless students can find employment.

To Pogemiller, a fund to provide homeless students with short-term emergency money might prove crucial. "We're looking for that little extra thing," he said, "that might prevent them from dropping out."

MCTC has won praise for its efforts to help homeless students with food, counseling and emergency housing. That can be crucial for students such as Menday, who didn't often tell classmates or instructors that he was homeless.

"You've got to have some sense of pride," said Menday, who added that he's determined to work hard, save up and finish his degree.