Education

Students struggle with homelessness, hunger at North Carolina colleges

Posted November 19, 2017 4:53 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 11:15 a.m. EDT

Jordyn Roark describes an almost invincible feeling when she arrived on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke campus four years ago. She was proud to get there and happy about what she had overcome.

"Once I got here I had this thought that I had made it," she said. "All of these difficulties were going to go away and that was not true."

Roark was homeless during her senior year of high school. She got help from her guidance counselor and a teacher to apply for federal financial aid and eventually earned an acceptance letter at UNCP. The financial aid helped pay for housing on campus, but there were a lot of gaps. For example, she didn't have anywhere to go when the residence halls closed for Thanksgiving or the Christmas holiday.

"Really the hardest time was my first semester because of that lack of support and I didn't feel like I belonged here because of my situation," she said. "I felt like I was the only one who was in this situation."

Roark is far from alone.

Jordyn Roark

"Right now we are identifying close to 30,000 children throughout North Carolina who are experiencing homelessness, and out of that percentage about 10 percent are going on to college," said Lisa Phillips who is the North Carolina Homeless Education Program Coordinator.

"Because there is not a large collection of data on these students who are experiencing homelessness on our campuses, people don't recognize that they exist."

This problem is magnified in community colleges that do not offer on-campus housing.

Erin Riney runs the food bank at Durham Technical Community College and also teaches classes. She had a recent student who opened up about his situation.

"He revealed to me that he was living in a storage unit, but he was still coming to class, getting there on time, doing his work and turning it in. And this was February in an unheated storage unit." said Riney.

Mariel Klem can relate. She sees homelessness on a regular basis as the director of student advocacy and support at Wake Tech Community College.

"Right now I have four students I am working with to try to help them," said Klem.

But she, and others like her, have very few tangible resources to help.

"It's extremely frustrating when you feel like there are no options and there's nothing you can do other than help them kind of put out the fire and help them for now," she said.

Mariel Klem

North Carolina has taken progressive steps to try to help students dealing with homelessness. The North Carolina Homeless Education Program designated a single point of contact for each college and university in the state, to try to guide students through the process of coming to campus and eventually graduating.

"We have students every single day who we are identifying and our goal is to do every single thing we can to help them understand what is available to them, what they can do and how successful they can be," said Phillips.

One of the biggest challenges for students dealing with homelessness is navigating the complicated financial aid system. Students have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year they are in school. This includes questions about each student's current living status and can determine whether or not the student gets the money he or she needs to continue going to school.

"The application for financial aid is difficult. It's very easy to make a small mistake or have a miscommunication where you could potentially lose all of your financial aid," said Roark, who is now a senior at UNCP.

"I found myself in tears last year applying for financial aid because I got the roundabout."

A new bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in September could make all of this easier by streamlining the process for financial aid and requiring colleges and universities to come up with a plan to help homeless students.

"I hope for the day when it's not about luck. When every student who is in this situation has as much access to their success as I have," said Roark, who spends a lot of her free time traveling around the country talking about issues facing students like her.

"I like to say that we do such a beautiful job walking students K-12, but sometimes it feels like because there is a lack of resources in higher education, that we are walking students to a brick wall."

Lisa Phillips

Students on college campuses in North Carolina are not only dealing with homelessness. Many of them are dealing with hunger and food insecurity, which is defined as not having consistent access to nutritional food.

The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) did a nationwide study last year, finding 50 percent of students at community colleges and 47 percent of students at four-year colleges consider themselves food insecure. College students can only use food stamps if they work 20 hours a week, which is challenging to do with a full time class schedule.

Wake Tech's student government held a food drive in 2013 only to see all of the collected food used within two weeks.

"That's when the school saw this is an actual problem on campus and we need to do something more long-term," said Klem.

As a result, Wake Tech now has full time food pantries at all of its campuses.

Bianca Robinson is an art major at Wake Tech. She visits the food bank at least once a week. She admitted things would be very different without the resource.

"It would be awful. I would probably be extremely miserable and tired and unable to do anything," she said." "So I (would) just figure there's no food, why do I even bother?"

The food banks are stocked by local businesses like Food Lion and they also take donations from people around the community who want to help. The most popular items are fresh fruits and vegetables and simple protein like peanut butter. The idea is to give the students something nutritious to get them through the school day.

Riney said it helps many students each semester to stay in school.

"It isn't a matter of people trying to take advantage of a system. They need the basic supports. We aren't looking at extras here, we are looking at basic let me get through the day supports."