The homeless conjure up images of the Great Depression or of churches and shelters on urban streets. You have seen them. Dozens of hungry, tired souls standing in ragtag clothes on a slate gray sidewalk. They wearily wait for a bite to eat, or a cot for the night. Or maybe you think of blue plastic tarps angled down from chain link fences. Cardboard signs held by stained, worn hands, pleading: Anything Helps. Maybe you meet their eyes if they are at an intersection and your car stops for a red light. But probably not. A few charitable folks hand out a dollar or five. Most likely, you are not one of them.
But when you think of those who are in search of shelter each night, or those waiting in lines for sustenance to be dished out, you probably don’t think about college students. Unfortunately, you should. Increasingly, in addition to the anxiety of midterms tests and research papers, students are stressed because they are sleeping in their cars and wondering where their next meal will come from.
At United University Church on the University of Southern California campus, hungry students line up each Wednesday at 8:30 in the evening. An average of 120 students who might otherwise go hungry file into the basement. It is called “Late Night Cafe’” and, on a good night, hungry students get dinner, a beverage, some dessert and possibly a to-go container of leftovers.
USC is an elite university. The students there are among our best and brightest. And yet, with an annual cost of $72,000 for tuition and room and board, students at USC are just like students at most institutions of higher learning across the nation. The cost of going to college has far outstripped wages and inflation. Most states are strapped for cash. The burden is falling on the shoulders of students and their families. And even this makes students seem more traditional than they actually are. A typical student is now non-traditional if they have one or more of the following characteristics:
The Late Night Cafe is not the only place in America that provides reliable meals and housing to non-traditional college students who are food and housing insecure. Canterbury Bridge Episcopal Campus Ministry learned that up 15 percent of students are homeless at San Jose State at some point during their education. They opened a shelter that has housed up to 20 students at a time over the last two years. In addition to shelters that have popped up across the country, there are currently 217 food pantries across the nation that provide food to hungry students.
Shelters and pantries are needed because 36 percent of four-year college students are food and housing insecure while in college. Non-traditional students work more outside of school and get less sleep. A minor car repair can mean dropping out of school. A call from home about a family emergency might spell the end of their pursuit of a college degree. These stresses are associated with lower grades and lower rates of degree completion. In addition, these anxieties also lead to financial challenges after college, including difficulty keeping up with student loan debt.
Pantries and shelters are for those who have stumbled and fallen on hard times. They shouldn’t be for those trying to make their way up in the world. The fact that we have shelters and pantries on campuses across our nation should sound an alarm. Or, it should at least spur solutions from policymakers and educators. After all, at this point: Anything Helps.
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