When you walk into your dorm for the first time, or onto the campus for your inaugural class, you just feel like you are crossing the threshold of an exciting new future. Hanging out in the Student Union, going back to your dorm or apartment at any hour of the night, writing dissertations on real life issues that you are passionate about. The freedom. The understanding that you are building a foundation for an amazing career.
Higher education is all about building hope.
So most people don't typically relate homelessness with attending college.
Yet, I was reminded again this past week about the precarious link between these two seemingly oxymorons when a local community college leader told us that 300 of his college students are homeless.
For those of us who grew up in family environments that practically worshipped higher education, the notion that college students could also be homeless is difficult to comprehend. Of course, it is also hard to understand that Los Angeles has 50,000 people who are homeless.
Many students come from families who are barely surviving this challenging economy. When the family loses their home, or the ability to support their college offspring, a student becomes at risk of becoming homeless.
A friend of mine told me he was homeless when he studied at UCLA. For one year, he lived in his car, because he did not have enough money to pay for the high-end rents on the west side of Los Angeles. UCLA acknowledges that my friend's predicament is not abnormal. The school set up an Economic Crisis Response Team because more and more of their students are homeless.
They are finding themselves sleeping on couches in the school library, or for a few weeks crashing on a friend's couch. Most experts on homelessness would not even consider "couch surfing" as a category of homelessness. But for students who have no other place to go, temporary couch living is nothing else but homelessness.
There is even a website where fellow housed students offer their couches to homeless students.
Talk about breaking the stereotype of homelessness. A student sporting a backpack and a Hollister jacket who sleeps on his friend's couch because he has no other place to go is not the same image as an inebriated man walking down Skid Row.
You can't really tell a homeless UCLA student to get a job and work harder, like some people say about the man on Skid Row. At a town hall meeting at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann responded to homeless people by saying, "...get a job and make your way." I am sure she was describing the man on Skid Row, not a homeless college student.
It seems to me that anyone who studies hard enough in high school to be accepted into college should also have the right to have a safe place to live while in college.
The community college leader we are talking to is considering having us build supportive housing for his homeless students. I give him an "A" on his test of leadership.