Some colleges tackle homeless students’ problems

Capital News Service
By AGNES BAO

LANSING – Although homeless college students have access to various types of assistance, many are reluctant to be identified as homeless because of stigma, experts say.

“There is a sense of denial about what homelessness actually is,” said Lynn Stufin, a public information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Stable housing is a stressor for many individuals,” Stufin said. “The identification that the individual is homeless may (bring) stress they are unable or unwilling to handle at that time.”

Pam Kies-Lowe, the coordinator for homeless education at the Department of Education, said,

“Lots of folks think about the homeless as bad people in the park, or they think the homeless are on the corner of an intersection with signs saying ‘homeless and hungry.’”  

However, an invisible group of homeless consists of students, Kies-Lowe said. They don’t live on the street and some of the older ones who are unaccompanied by parents stay with their friends or relatives.

The definition of homeless children and youth isn’t limited to those sleeping on the streets, but also includes lacking a regular nighttime residence, sharing housing or sleeping in places that aren’t supposed to be a regular accommodations, according to federal law.

More awareness and better identification of homeless students are needed, Kies-Lowe said.

“The whole experience of being homeless hurts their mental health a lot more than being identified, because once they are identified we connect them with the services and support they need to stay and succeed in school,” she said.

Those services typically include financial aid, housing, food and transportation.

Wayne State University launched the HIGH (Helping Individuals Go Higher) program for homeless students in 2013.

The program aims at helping homeless, precariously housed and financially challenged students to earn their degree and prevent them from dropping out because of financial problems.

“Sixty-one percent of the applicants are seniors, and so we do what we can to provide a bridge so that they graduate,” said Pearlanne Pollard, the program’s executive assistant.

“At the point, we have a 100 percent graduation rate of our seniors that come in [to the program],” Pollard said. But still, many homeless students haven’t been identified yet.

As homeless students don’t necessarily sleep on the street, “we don’t have any way of identifying them,” she said. “If they don’t apply for [the program], then we don’t know who they are.”

The HIGH program put in great efforts on reaching out to potentially homeless students through social media, flyers, deans, advisers, financial aid staff and a welcome center.

Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, said the challenges facing homeless students are a growing concern.

“The colleges in the state are not really set up to deal with homeless students,” Hansen said. Connecting them with local agencies and organizations is better.

Colleges are educational institutions and aren’t experts on homelessness, he said. “But we are doing what we can to connect homeless students to appropriate services and service providers.”

Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College collaborate with the MORE Support program provided by Ozone House, which is a nonprofit agency based in Ypsilanti with the goal of helping young homeless people.

The MORE Support program partners with campus “coaches” to provide health care for homeless students.

Many problems cause homeless students to suffer trauma, including abuse, the disruption of care and changes in housing, said Dave Zellmer, the program’s therapist.

Partnering with colleges reduces the barrier for students who need care, Zellmer said. “The stigma around homelessness can make it hard for students to talk about that, and they might not want other people to know.”

The program isn’t about labeling homeless people but it’s about providing support for students and making sure they get what they need to succeed in school, he said.  

With the program’s mental health care, 80 percent of  participants showed reductions in traumatic stress and 75 percent demonstrated reductions in symptoms related to depression and anxiety, according to Ozone House.

They also had higher class attendance rates and higher academic achievement, the agency said.