Qulea Anderson, a junior in N.C. State’s English Department majoring in creative writing, sits on one of the couches in front of one of the 15-foot windows of the student lounge inside Caldwell Hall at N.C. State.
Like many students around her, Anderson is wearing school colors: black athletic pants and a bright red N.C. State T-shirt. Although she looks much like any other student at the Raleigh university, Anderson’s situation is one that many on campus do not even know exists.
She is homeless.
“I started university here in August 2016,” said Anderson. “But in March of that year, my father died and I knew the house would be foreclosed.” Anderson, now 20, has been homeless ever since.
Anderson is one of the 187 N.C. State students who reported a period of homelessness over the last 12 months, in a 2017 survey by N.C. State’s Institutional Research and Planning office.
Student homelessness can lead to potential physical and emotional abuse, psychological stress and high food insecurity, according to Sarah Gould Wright, who works with student support services at N.C. State.
Living on campus — but homeless
Wright also said there are misconceptions regarding student homelessness — many students do not understand how someone living in a dorm can be considered homeless.
Anderson paused and looked towards the student playing a classical tune on the student lounge’s piano at the other end of the room. “My biological parents did not have the resources nor the time to take care of me,” says Anderson. “When I was a few months old, my birth father gave me to a couple he and my birth mother knew.”
That couple was Deborah and Milton Alston, and they became Anderson’s legal guardians. There has not been much contact between Anderson and her biological parents since.
After both her legal guardians passed away – Deborah died in January 2013 – and her childhood home foreclosure, Anderson didn’t have a permanent home.
“While I have friends and other family members who would help, it’s not the same,” Anderson said in a soft voice.
“People automatically assume that homeless means living on the street,” said Anderson. However, the U.S. Department of Education bases the notion of homelessness on whether an individual has had to stay in a shelter, camper, hotel, or outdoor location, among others, within the past 12 months.
Wright said the issue is not just about having a place to stay, such as a dorm room, but much more so, it is about having access to a safe, stable location for when on-campus housing is closed.
Dorms close during spring and winter breaks, Wright notes, two periods during which homeless students are most at risk.
The high cost of campus housing
What can be done to help decrease the number of homeless students? When N.C. State students were asked by a reporter, some said the university should lower the cost of on-campus housing.
Sara Elizabeth Lewandowski, a sophomore majoring in history, said the university should lower the cost of tuition to free up disposable money which students strapped for cash could spend on housing.
“It appears to me that people are being forced to choose between getting an education or having a home,” said Lewandowski.
Wright also pointed out that off-campus lodging isn’t often an option either. Homeless students typically do not have a cosigner, they do not have the required cash to pay for an application, or they are unable to earn three times the rent price – which is often a requirement to even be approved by a landlord.
These factors can lead homeless students to couch-surf or sleep in public, said Wright.
“But these are dangerous situations to be in,” said Wright. “You don’t know what that student might have to do to sleep on that couch – some might have to go as far as sexually compensating their host for being offered a place to stay.”
Wright added that thee situations can lead homeless students to enter abusive relationships – physical, psychological, or both.
Fortunately, Anderson has not been exposed to such circumstances. “So far, I’ve been able to stay with a family member like one of my biological sisters or one of my brothers or cousins,” said Anderson.
While Anderson does not feel as though she has the luxury to complain when she gets the chance to stay with a family member, she admits longing for a space of her own. “Sometimes you just feel like an added burden,” said Anderson.
Homeless across America
The exact number of college students affected by homelessness is difficult to determine, according to an April 2017 article by Elizabeth Harris, a reporter for the New York Times who covers education. “(This is) in part because of the enormous stigma surrounding the issue,” wrote Harris. “But new research shows how pervasive a problem it is – and one that some educators believe is growing.”
An April 2018 survey published by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE lab found that 3,870 students were homeless within the past year. The survey focused on 43,000 students at 66 institutions — 35 four-year universities and 31 two-year colleges — in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
N.C. State does not appear among the list of participating institutions, though one of the 35 four-year universities asked to remain anonymous.
According to Wright, N.C. State provides three options such as the University Temporary and Emergency Housing, which provides temporary and emergency housing on a case-by-case basis.
“N.C. State recognizes that student homelessness and food insecurity are a serious issue on campuses across the country,” said Dr. Michael Mullen, the vice chancellor and dean for the Division of Academic and Student Affairs at N.C. State. “N.C. State is no different, and that is why we have established the Food and Housing Security Steering Team which continues to bring a focus to these issues.”
N.C. State also established a student emergency fund that enables the university to assist students with one-time funds to cover emergencies that might derail a student’s progress to obtaining their degree, according to Mullen.
“We will continue to develop new programs to assist students with housing and food issues, and other emergency needs,” said Mullen.
Olivier Metzler graduated this month from NC State University.