Colleges, housing authorities join forces to address student homelessness

Recognizing that a significant number of today’s college students struggle with housing insecurity and homelessness, institutions are collaborating with local housing authorities and nonprofit groups to reduce student homelessness. A national survey revealed that 9 percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students self-identify as homeless.

This basic needs insecurity has implications not only for student success but also for colleges’ enrollment numbers, given that “students in unstable living environments…are more likely to drop out,” according to The Hechinger Report.

Efforts underway in Washington State

Looking specifically at efforts to address student homelessness in Washington State, The Hechinger Report spoke with formerly homeless student Dorothy Gorder, who eventually secured housing for herself and her son in Seattle through a collaboration between Tacoma Community College (TCC) and the Tacoma Housing Authority. The College Housing Assistance Program provides vouchers for subsidized rent to 150 TCC students who are homeless or housing-insecure. TCC has found that homeless students who are provided with housing assistance are four times more likely to stay enrolled than those without assistance.

A program at the University of Washington-Tacoma (UWT), meanwhile, started with student activism. Leaders in UWT’s student government partnered with the local housing authority and a private developer to reserve 52 “micro-units” for students experiencing or at risk for homelessness.

“Higher education is not a social service agency, and we recognize that,” said Ed Mirecki, dean of students at UWT. “But on the other hand, if we really are focused on increasing access and providing these [educational] opportunities for students, we have an obligation to help support their success and that means creating these support structures around affordable housing and food insecurity.”

Obstacles to housing vouchers

The Washington State programs have also shed light on obstacles to helping homeless college students. The 255-square-foot units offered by UWT, for instance, are too small for students with families. Some students also struggle to obtain and use housing vouchers, given the dearth of affordable housing in the region, the complex paperwork required, and the need to cover move-in costs. UWT’s foundation attempts to shrink that hurdle by helping cover students’ housing deposits.

Landlords also may be wary of students with past evictions or criminal records. “It’s really hard to use a voucher in this market, because landlords have been picky,” said Tacoma Housing Authority project manager Aley Thompson.

Programs inspiring statewide policy

The Hechinger Report writes that Washington lawmakers, inspired by the results from TCC’s program, “have proposed requiring the state’s community colleges and four-year institutions to give access to laundry facilities, storage units, and showers to homeless students and work with local housing authorities to develop rental assistance programs.”

Gorder, meanwhile, has testified in front of the state legislature in support of such policies—and their ability to transform lives.

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