The scars on Christine Banjo’s arms are still there — faint marks from the bed bugs that bit her when her family was living in a motel room during her high-school years. "Battle wounds," she calls them: a faded but constant reminder that the college junior has been chronically homeless since she was 7.
During the school year, Ms. Banjo, who is 20, lives in the dorms at Norfolk State University. But on summer vacation and during other breaks, she has no set place to go. There’s no room for her in the rooming house where her parents live, so she crashes with friends or sublets space in a cramped apartment. Most days, her only meal is the sandwich and fries she gets during her shift at McDonald’s. She returns there on her days off just to have something to eat.
Ms. Banjo says she tries not to dwell on her status but "to put it in a box and act like a normal person." She avoids calling her parents, because she doesn’t like to be reminded that they’re still struggling. Her father works as a valet at a hotel, but her mother is schizophrenic and can’t work.
"I have my depressed moments, but I pull myself out if it," she says. Still, she adds: "I sometimes wonder if it’s ever going to end."
Her situation is not that unusual. Nationwide, close to 60,000 "unaccompanied homeless youth" receive federal financial aid as independent students. There are probably thousands more who aren’t applying for aid or who are receiving aid as financial dependents, advocates say.
Some of them, like Ms. Banjo, grew up homeless. Others fled abusive homes as teenagers or were disowned by their families because of their sexual orientation. They include students who are living in shelters, sleeping in cars, and commuting from campgrounds. They also include students, like Ms. Banjo, who live on campus most of the year.
The challenges that homeless students face extend well beyond shelter to food insecurity, sleep deprivation, and poor health. Many must choose between educational expenses and food, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks.
Yet homeless college students remain a largely invisible population — often indistinguishable from their peers and overlooked in policy debates. They get less attention than former foster youth and are often excluded from programs and policies benefiting such students. Many hide their homelessness from professors and peers out of shame or fear of being pitied.
Many college administrators aren’t even aware that homeless students are present on their campuses. Advocates say there’s a lingering misperception that a homeless person is someone who lives on the side of the road, not someone who "couch surfs" during breaks.
"Everybody has a picture in their mind of what a homeless person looks like," says Cyekeia Lee, director of higher-education initiatives at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "They struggle with the fact that they don’t have to be on the street, or under a bench."
That’s starting to change, if slowly. On some college campuses, administrators are taking a broader view of what it means to be homeless, and they are responding with programs aimed at getting more homeless students into — and through — college. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, says colleges are catching on to the challenges those students face and taking steps to help them secure food during the year and shelter during breaks.
"Two years ago, I thought food insecurity meant, I don’t like beets," he says. Now, he says, the topic comes up often at his group’s meetings.
If colleges have been slow to help homeless students, it may be because they know so little about the population. States keep tabs on the number of homeless students attending their public schools, but once they graduate high school "they fall off the map," says Barbara Duffield, director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Policy makers have only one statistic to turn to: the number of homeless students granted status as independents on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa. But there’s no measure of how many enroll or make it to graduation. Research on the population is almost nonexistent.
For Ms. Banjo, who first became homeless in second grade, even graduating from high school was a challenge. Kept awake by the bed bugs, she often fell asleep in class and nearly failed the 11th grade. It wasn’t until she drew a "Help" sign in class and a friend showed it to the principal that her school connected her with a community organization in Richmond, Va. She ultimately graduated with a 3.3 GPA.
Because many homeless students move frequently, they’re often at an academic disadvantage to their peers. Each time they switch schools, they have to adjust to new teachers, new peers, and often, new curricula. They may miss stretches of school during relocations. Once on campus, they often wrestle with feelings of self-doubt and loneliness. Some have lived with their families for so long in cramped motel rooms or shelters that they’re afraid to be alone in their dorms, says Ms. Lee, who answers her association’s homeless-student hotline. Others can’t accept that they’re finally in an apparently stable situation.
Marcy Stidum, associate director for counseling and psychological services at Kennesaw State University, says she knows of one student who packs her bags nearly every Saturday night in anticipation of moving. Ms. Stidum has helped the student purchase a meal plan and get federal work-study support, but she hasn’t been able to convince her that she won’t be evicted yet again.
"She told me that it’s hard to believe that somebody is not going to knock on your door and tell you to leave," Ms. Stidum says.
Ms. Banjo has lots of friends, but says she doesn’t feel she can share her struggles with them "because they wouldn’t get it, and it would make me mad," she says. "I miss that — having someone to talk to."
Financial desperation can deepen feelings of isolation. Homeless college students don’t qualify for the $5,000 education-and-training voucher that the federal government provides to former foster youth, and they aren’t eligible for most state tuition waivers.
That disparity may be partly due to differing perceptions of the two populations, says Amy Dworsky, a research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall who studies foster youth. While foster youth are often viewed as victims, homeless students are sometimes seen as "troublemakers who should just go back home," she says. "They don’t get the same level of public sympathy."
So while homeless students may receive enough aid to cover tuition, they’re often left scrambling to find ways to pay for books and food. Ms. Lee says she’s gotten calls from women who were considering prostitution to pay for books. Once she heard from a young man who was stealing from wishing wells to buy food.
"He said he felt like he was stealing people’s dreams," she says. "A lot of times, students have told me, ‘I’ve had to do things I’m ashamed of.’"
But the calls Ms. Lee gets most often are about navigating the Fafsa. Eight years ago, Congress expanded the definition of "independent" student to include "unaccompanied homeless youth," allowing homeless students to obtain aid without their parents’ signatures or financial documentation. But many homeless students still struggle to prove they qualify. In part, that’s because their colleges don’t believe them.
Under federal law, financial-aid administrators are supposed to grant independent status to students, age 21 or younger, who check a box on the Fafsa indicating that they have been declared unaccompanied and homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Such a declaration can be made by a high-school or district liaison, the director or a federally funded emergency shelter or transitional housing program, or the director of a center or living program for runaways or homeless youths.
Aid administrators are not required to verify a student’s status unless they’re aware of conflicting information. Even then, a written statement from, or conversation with, one of these declaring authorities is sufficient proof. An aid administrator can even grant independence to a student based only on an interview with him or her.
Those are the rules. But in practice, many financial-aid administrators demand additional evidence from students, treating their cases as matters of "professional judgment," advocates say. Others will deny students independent status based on their own notions of homelessness, rather than the federal definition: "lacking fixed, regular and adequate housing."
Older students face even more hurdles. Because the law defines unaccompanied "youth" as individuals who are 21 or under, applicants who are older than that have to seek an override of their status as dependents. To do so, they must provide information that demonstrates their "unusual circumstances."
Jennifer Martin, director of training initiatives for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says some campus financial-aid officers are "a little uncomfortable" with the minimal documentation requirements for unaccompanied youth. "It kind of scares people, because they don’t think it’s enough," she says. "There’s a concern that students are trying to work the system."
Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Friends are typically "shocked" to learn that Christine Banjo is homeless. "I have to tell them, Don’t feel sorry for me," she says.
Given the consequences of getting a determination of independence wrong — wasted resources, a potential federal audit — many administrators err on the side of caution and deny requests, Ms. Lee says.
Students can appeal colleges’ decisions to the U.S. Department of Education, but advocates for homeless students say they face long odds. A spokeswoman for the department, Denise Horn, says the agency doesn’t know how many students have won appeals or even filed them.
Even students who gain independent status as freshmen must reapply each year, convincing their colleges that they’re still homeless. Because public-school liaisons and shelter administrators can’t vouch for students they are no longer serving, most sophomores, juniors, and seniors must seek homeless determinations from their financial-aid offices.
Nancy Guzman, a 20-year-old sociology major at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calls the annual approval process "draining." Ms. Guzman, who says she left home in high school because her mother’s boyfriend was abusing her, had to submit a personal statement and letters from a counselor and social worker to qualify as an independent her freshman and sophomore years. This year, her application for aid was initially rejected, and she had to appeal.
"I don’t like having to explain myself to a different person each year, opening up my deep, dark secrets," she says. "They should just ask you: Has your situation changed?"
With Congress scheduled to take up a renewal of the Higher Education Act as early as this fall, advocates are pushing lawmakers to make it easier for homeless students to qualify as independents. Their wish list is reflected in a 2013 bill by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, that would abolish the annual recertification process and expand the federal definition of "youth" to include 22- and 23-year-olds. The measure would also compel financial-aid offices to interview students who lack outside documentation stating that they are homeless.
In the meantime, the Education Department has reminded aid administrators of the "sensitive nature of these situations." In July, the agency issued a warning that some colleges are "unnecessarily restricting applicants’ access to aid" by asking them to "justify" their status rather than simply prove they are homeless or at risk of becoming so.
Sitting in a circle at the front of a conference room in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in June, 10 homeless students, some clutching tissues, described what it is like to grow up with no sense of stability or security. They told congressional aides, many of them not much older, how it feels to always be the new kid at school, to get in trouble because your uniform is dirty, to be bullied because you haven’t seen the latest episode of That’s So Raven, to do your homework in a campground.
The students had all received scholarships from the association for the education of homeless youth, which had brought them to Washington to share their stories. Those stories were deeply personal and deeply felt: Students discussed how they’d been caregivers to younger siblings and to mentally ill and addicted parents, and wept when they recalled how they’d been abused.
Nearly all said college was their ticket out of poverty. Yet some felt conflicted about going.
"It almost feels selfish" leaving siblings behind, said Ms. Guzman. "It’s tough because they’re still in the situation that I had to deal with."
Feelings of survivor’s guilt are common among homeless college students, says Ms. Lee. Homeless students with siblings "often feel that they’ve abandoned them to better their lives." To help out, they’ll send home portions of their student-aid refunds, or let family members crash in their dorm rooms.
Several of the students who spoke in Washington said they didn’t trust people to help them and didn’t want to be looked down upon. "I don’t ask many people" for help, says Ms. Banjo, "because they’ll think I just want pity, or they’ll say, Do it yourself."
When she does reveal that she’s homeless, her friends are typically "shocked," she said, later. "I have to tell them what it means," she said. "I have to tell them, Don’t feel sorry for me."
That’s a common sentiment. Quinton D. Geis, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, interviewed several homeless college students for his graduate thesis, and he found that most just wanted to be treated as "normal, regular students." They said they felt disconnected from their peers and got little support from their institutions. Yet the students he interviewed were also determined to finish their degrees, seeing them as paths to a more secure future.
Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor of social work at California State University at Long Beach, interviewed homeless students for her doctoral dissertation and is now conducting a research project to determine the number of students across the system’s 23 campuses who don’t have enough healthy food to eat.
Many of the homeless students she spoke with "didn’t want to feel like they were begging for support, and they wanted to be self-reliant adults that don’t need help," she says. "They were incredibly resilient and determined."
Still, Ms. Banjo wishes colleges would do more to lend a hand. Better access to food, clothes, and counseling "would be helpful," she says.
With two years of college left, she’s struggling to balance school with her fast-food shift. But she’s determined not to drop out, like her older brother did. Her goal is to become a social worker so that she can offer to other homeless youth the support she has lacked.
"Homelessness has made me feel as though I were an outcast and isolated from society," she wrote in her application for the advocacy group’s scholarship. "If I can help one child avoid even half of what I’ve endured, I would be truly happy."