Q: When assisting homeless individuals who aspire to take college-level classes or attain a degree, what are some of the most common barriers encountered?
A: For my clients, the biggest barriers seem to be lack of childcare, coordination of class and work schedules, and access to the technology needed to complete class work. Most students or prospective students experiencing homelessness can’t afford to attend school full-time without having a job of some sort to pay the bills. In many workplaces, coordinating work schedules around a student’s class schedule just isn’t an option (particularly in the types of jobs most homeless individuals without a college degree have – shift work with rotating schedules, temporary jobs, etc.).
Childcare also presents a huge barrier for parents who are enrolled in college courses, as most classrooms don’t approve of bringing children to class, and childcare costs are often unaffordable to those with limited income.
Access to technology is a barrier my clients seem to be encountering more and more as learning environments become more heavily reliant on online platforms, or require students to do work requiring internet access outside of class time. Typically, emergency shelters don’t have Wi-Fi, and only some have computers for residents to access, which makes completing work at night difficult for those students who may be residing in shelters. One of my clients often ends up in her car at the McDonald’s parking lot late at night, sending in last minute online contributions to her group projects using their free Wi-Fi.
Q: What are some of the best resources available to homeless students who wish to undertake postsecondary learning?
A: Obviously financial aid is the most heavily utilized resource for students experiencing homelessness, as they typically qualify for Pell grants, Hope scholarships, and other federal and state financial aid funds.
The Department of Human Services provides limited childcare subsidies for individuals who are in need, a program many of my clients utilize to help pay for childcare while in school, as well as utilizing their other services, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Families First, and food stamps.
Clearly, when discussing homelessness, housing is generally the biggest concern, so that’s the area in which most folks need referrals. Often there are many local programs geared toward providing housing and supportive services. Other types of organizations prospective homeless students may find in their area include those which help students facing financial obstacles by providing resources to assist with debt reduction, building credit, and much more: all crucial for students who are trying to make things work on very little income. Local churches also sometimes provide resources for individuals experiencing homelessness, including sack lunches, bus passes and gift cards for groceries and gas.
Q: Many homeless students feel overwhelmed when trying to balance their educations with other responsibilities in their lives, such as children, work, or supporting family members. What advice do you have for students who feel they have too much going on to pursue education?
A: Working with clients who are pursuing education while experiencing homelessness, I’m continually impressed at how much they have to juggle. I think of times I complained about the stress of finals during college, and I had a stable place to live, no children and a lot of support from my family, so I can’t imagine the stress students who are homeless must feel. However, I’ve seen that for these students, the payoff of pursuing an education can be huge. A former client went from working a part-time minimum wage job at Pizza Hut during school to make ends meet to completing a fairly brief IT training program and getting an incredible entry-level job in the field making $45,000 a year. The incredible amount of effort she put in for that year changed the course of her life and career. Additionally, I’d advise students to reach out to organizations or federal programs that can help them.