Ms. Elmore is director of Single Stop, a program dedicated to helping students navigate money and housing problems, at the City University of New York’s Kingsborough campus, a community college in Brooklyn. She and her team counsel students on how to make ends meet, often by walking them through the process of applying for public aid or directing them to resources that might help them feed their families or keep a roof over their heads.
A study published in 2011 found that 24 percent of students on 17 CUNY campuses (including Kingsborough) had experienced both food and housing insecurity in the previous year. Other surveys, including a large study released last week, have suggested that such problems may be more prevalent than previously thought. This is especially true at community colleges, where students tend to be older and saddled with additional debts and responsibilities.
Ms. Elmore talked to The Chronicle about students’ struggle for upward mobility through higher education. Following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
Q. When college students are suffering from hunger or homelessness, they come to you for help. What stories do you hear most often?
A. Most students who come in here are looking for government assistance. They either need assistance with shelter, they need assistance with food, they may need assistance with counseling, or child care. Sometimes they’re coming to see the attorney because they’re facing an eviction from their landlord, or a parent kicked them out and they have nowhere to go.
Q. Do they typically know what they need when they come in?
A. For the most part students are coming in because they don’t know. You have some come in who are completely dumbfounded. Most of the time if a student comes in because they’re facing an eviction, they don’t know what to do. They’re scared by the eviction. If a student comes in because they’re hungry, they might not be eligible for food stamps, but they need to know what the process is for that.
Q. Who are these students?
A. It’s anywhere from 17-year-olds to 54-year-olds, students who are working, students who are not working, students who are married, single parents, international students, undocumented students. There’s no uniform kind of student who’s coming in all the time.
Q. How do they find out about your office?
A. We have work-study students who physically do outreach. I do workshops, orientations; I send out emails. I do classroom announcements, where I go in and do a spiel about what we do at Single Stop. I’ll extend myself to any program or professor who wants me to come into their class.
But you can’t just walk into a classroom and invite yourself. You have to be invited. That’s a struggle sometimes.
Q. Do you get invited to a lot of classrooms, or do you wish you were invited to more?
A. Absolutely I wish I was invited to more. I think I’m not invited to enough.
The nursing department always invites me. A lot of those students are going to have to stop working during their studies because the curriculum is so tough that it forces them to leave their jobs. So unfortunately a lot of those students are going to need our services.
Q. Do you think faculty members are aware of how prevalent the problems of hunger and homelessness are among their students?
A. Some are. I’ll get faculty who will reach out to me because of a student. But then there are some faculty who don’t care. It’s not like they’re oblivious to the problems of their students; I think that some of them just worry about what they’re doing, their curriculum and their classwork, not necessarily the other struggles that a student might be going through — why the student might not be able to come to their class every day or be able to make it to every exam.
Sometimes a professor will say, "Let me walk you over to Single Stop because I believe they can help you." Unfortunately most of the time that’s only for students who are, like, their "A" students. They want to keep that student in their class because then they also look good. But if it’s a student who’s struggling — and they’re struggling because they’re practically homeless and they’re couch-surfing, then it’s just like, "Maybe you should withdraw from the class."
Q. Studies on student housing and food insecurity distinguish between crises — getting evicted, or going hungry — and more routine levels of discomfort, like worrying about making rent or buying cheap food that’s not nutritious. Are the students who come to you often in crisis, or is it typically less urgent than that?
A. Unfortunately there’s a lot of students who come when they’re already in crisis. You’re sort of between a rock and a hard place because you want to do something for them, but at that point it may be too late. So you might have to find alternative ways to help them and then hope that they can be helped. Unfortunately you can’t fix everyone’s problem. Sometimes you can’t even make it a little better.
Students do struggle with: "Do I go to college, or do I put food on the table?" They leave their job or they cut their hours so they can come to school. They can’t afford to live, but then they’re told that they make too much to be eligible for any government assistance to help them along the way.
Q. A lot of people might look at the issue of food insecurity among college students and say, "So what? I lived on ramen noodles during college — this isn’t a problem, it’s a rite of passage." Is that a valid point, or does it misunderstand the issue?
A. No! That shouldn’t even be something that someone says — "Well, everyone has to struggle." No. You should not. That should not be the life.
When I was going through community college, I was working full time and going to school full time. I wish I would have had a Single Stop, I wish I would have known that I was eligible for food stamps. It would have made my life so much easier.
You should not have had to go through that struggle and say, "Well, everyone else did it so you have to earn your stake, too." No. That’s a horrible excuse. It shouldn’t be, "Eat poorly and get diabetes just so you can go to college."
Q. Do you hear that argument?
A. I feel as though there’s some people on the campus, that — sometimes I cry. There are people who just don’t understand the struggle of being hungry, and working, and going to school and trying to maintain your grades and GPA, and taking care of children, because they didn’t have to do it.
Q. If survey numbers are to be believed, there are a lot of students who could use help but aren’t seeking it out. What keeps students from coming into your office?
A. There’s a stigma. Of course, people are embarrassed. There’ll be someone here who could always make money and support their family, and now they came back to school because they lost their job and they need to go into another field. And they’re embarrassed. I see a lot of single dads who are eligible for government benefits, and they don’t want to apply because of pride.
Here, we’re only able to process a SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e. food stamps] application. I can pretty much convince them to do the SNAP portion. Some people, if I don’t catch them when they have all their documents with them, they’re not going to come back. If I can catch them, especially if they have their child here with them — and be more compassionate as a woman, sometimes that works in my favor — then I’ll get them to actually do the application. But if it’s for cash or rental assistance, they’re not going to want to walk into the building.
Q. Obviously there are larger forces at work here. How much responsibility can a community college take for hunger and homelessness among its students? Do you get people above you saying, "Listen, we can’t fix a society that puts our students in hard situations"?
A. Well, the great thing about our new president is that he’s for retention. When you know that every seat that’s filled is going to put more money into the school and keep the school going, you have to do what you have to do. So it’s looking at: Why are students leaving?
Our president started an initiative that targeted students who are saying that they’re hungry, that they have transportation and housing issues, health issues, child-care issues, academic issues. That makes it so much better. But the president alone can’t do it. He understands, that’s great. But then it’s the senior staff and then the administration under them that also have to follow along with it.