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Homeless College Students a New Group Among the Invisible

Renee Westbrook is a mature, middle class, college-educated African American woman, a former journalist, who suddenly found herself homeless.

I met her at the San Diego International Fringe Festival where we are both performing our one-person plays. Mine is called “Amok Monologues: Short History of an American Filipino (NPR, Harvard, Death on Mission St.).

Westbrook’s is called “Shelter,” her personal tale of seeking shelter for the night and finding she is not alone. She tells stories of other people of different ethnicities, circumstances, who found themselves without a place to call home.

It can happen to anyone.

After seeing her show, I found out the broad definition of homeless would also include a segment I didn’t expect: college students.

A new national survey taken at 70 community colleges across 24 states is now part of growing data that shows college students are not immune.

“We’re the third study to find either 13 or 14 percent, so it’s consistent,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University told the Associated Press. “But at the same time, my bigger concern, and the thing that staggers me a little bit, is thinking this could be an underestimate.”

Goldrick-Rab said the problem is electronic surveys are prone to undercounts, and yielded just a 5 percent response.

Paul Toro, a psychology professor at t Wayne State, did a similar study at his school and found 5 percent of the Wayne State students were homeless or in a near-homeless state.

Out of the 30,000 student population, that would put the total at 1,500 students in need at Wayne State.

The data is startling because no one thinks students can be homeless. There’s an attitude that students will be all right. Parents will be there as a safety net for support, right?

But when they’re not, especially when students are atypical — for example, older learners who are seeking a way to lift themselves out of their economic situation — homelessness suddenly can become a variable that has not been talked about seriously before.

It’s even more critical when students who are homeless get shut out of shelters because they are often in class when it’s time to secure a shelter spot. Researchers say that’s happening a lot to college students, who then don’t know who to turn to because of the stigma of homelessness.

It’s a shame because there are solutions out there. For example, Southern Scholarship Foundation in Florida has been providing housing scholarships for 60 years, where homeless college students get rent-free housing. Other private charities exist. But we have to fight the stigma and get people talking in order to find and deal with the problem.

At the San Diego Fringe Festival, Westbrook’s one-woman show for me was one way to open my eyes to the problem in general. Homelessness hasn’t gone away. It’s expanding in definition, including students, and the data is growing.

College administrators can’t forget to look out for students and assume their housing situation is secure. Administrators need to know the difference between the backpack with books, and the backpack with everything one owns.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator who writes for the civil rights group AALDEF at

San Diego Fringe Festival info:

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