Learning Without a Home: Will a Housing First Approach Work on Campus?

Written by: Malik Rivers, Project Associate, National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Marcus Ware, Strategic Partnerships Manager, Generation Hope
Soon, colleges across the country will close their campuses in observance of Thanksgiving. For students experiencing homelessness, many approach the coming break with dread, mindful that they’ll need to – again – find somewhere safe and warm to stay until classes resume.

Pursuing a college education without stable housing can have a devastating impact on a student’s chance of earning a degree. Homelessness can happen at any age, including to college students. So how can colleges use a Housing First approach to better serve students and reduce the number of unhoused learners?

Housing First and Student Homelessness

Since 1992, Housing First has emerged as an evidenced-based approach to reducing the number of unhoused people in the U.S. Guided by the belief that people need necessities like food and a place to live before attending anything less critical (such as pursuing a degree), Housing First views housing as the foundation for life improvement and can be applied to the college context.

By prioritizing housing in efforts to increase support for vulnerable student populations, colleges can remove the burden of seeking a place to live and replace it with the stability afforded to those in residence halls or who stay off campus. Students experiencing various types of housing instability – ranging from couch-surfing, sleeping in a car or RV, temporarily staying at a hotel, sleeping at a shelter, or sleeping outside – would all benefit from a stable housing situation that would allow them to focus on class attendance and completing their assignments. It is extremely hard to earn a degree when there is no place to study, sleep, or shower. Ultimately, employing a Housing First approach for college students will position these students to graduate at higher rates and experience the economic mobility afforded to those with a college degree.

The Scope of College Students Experiencing Homelessness

Homelessness among students enrolled in higher education has been a longstanding invisible issue, as many may not disclosed their situations due to stigma and shame. In the last 10 years, however, researchers from several organizations have published reports that shine a bright light on the widespread nature of homelessness in higher education.

According to data from the Hope Center’s 2021 Basic Needs Survey, although 14 percent of students at both 2-and 4-year institutions experienced homelessness in the 12 months prior to the survey, only 2 percent of students enrolled at 4-year institutions self-identified as homeless (3 percent at 2-year colleges). This data comes amidst a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows costs for tuition and fees rising almost 5 percent since right before the pandemic, underscoring the difficulty that students from lower-income backgrounds face when attempting to pay for college.

The Hope Center Report also points to serious disparities in racial equity among basic needs insecurity for college students:

  • Indigenous, African American and Hispanic students are far more likely to experience basic needs insecurity than their white counterparts.
  • Students identifying as LGBTQ are 9 percent more likely than non-LGBTQ students to experience basic needs insecurity.
  • The rate of basic needs security among students with experience in the foster care system is 21 percent higher than amongst students with no foster-care experience.

For some in student-facing roles, the problem of student homelessness has grown worse over the years. In a conversation to inform context on this blog post, Dr. Amani Jennings, Dean of Students at Bowie State University (MD), underscored the challenges facing campuses committed to reducing the number of unhoused students, noting that “not all institutions of higher learning have the political, cultural, or financial might to impact some of the variables responsible for student homelessness.” He went on to share that “colleges and universities must acknowledge that college student homelessness is a reality. Institutions have a responsibility to, in some way, identify their homeless population and try to determine the source of the housing insecurity.” Those are just the first steps, though, in tackling an issue that impacts every other segment of society beyond students. That begs the question: how do we solve this issue once and for all?

Solutions for College Students Experiencing Homelessness

With a clearer understanding of the scale of the crisis facing unhoused students across the country, many colleges and universities are responding with various types of support. Many of these initiatives address food and transportation insecurity, like the increasing number of pantries and emergency aid resources offered, but opportunity remains to drastically reduce the number of students experiencing homelessness.

Being a student experiencing homelessness looks different for everyone. Most experience couch-surfing, sleeping in their cars, staying at shelters, or sleeping on the street all year round. Many can secure campus housing while classes are in session, but are consistently reminded that they don’t have a place to go when fall, winter, and spring breaks come around – reuniting students with their families, their home. Financial stress, health challenges, stigma, and limited social support are overwhelming challenges that these students face every day. Every student in this situation can relate to the anxiety, worry, or fear of not knowing where or if they will have a safe and stable place to sleep – if what they have to offer will be enough to keep their spot on the couch or second bedroom. While students’ experiences of homelessness vary, the one thing they have in common is the need for housing.

As campuses seek to stabilize or increase enrollment after being heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for on-campus housing has grown. Some are responding by increasing the number of housing units available to students. Others have looked to their local community, establishing directories of available off-campus housing listings and partnerships with local housing authorities and other community-based housing providers to minimize the number of students without housing. Another popular strategy is to offer emergency funding to help with housing costs, but Dr. Jennings shared a note of caution: “having emergency funds are always helpful, but these funding sources are not the panacea for housing insecurity and there are typically limits on how much money is available and how it can be spent.” No matter the route, colleges must innovate and invest more in creating conditions that will allow every student they admit to secure housing. By using a Housing First approach and ending homelessness on campus, colleges can better serve their students and provide them a path to graduation and economic mobility.