Housing Providers Deliver Vital Support to College Students Experiencing Homelessness
Emerging research shows that students in higher education are increasingly experiencing homelessness across the country. This trend is obstructing education pathways to upward economic mobility, as youth experiencing housing instability have lower college graduation rates than those living in stable housing. Educational institutions and housing providers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue, but little research exists to understand what best supports these students in their pursuit of higher education. This qualitative study aims to inform the policies and practices of organizations serving youth experiencing homelessness by engaging the voices and perspectives of the youth themselves.
To conduct the study, the researcher interviewed 20 youth from the Los Angeles area who were homeless, unaccompanied, between 18 and 24 years old, and enrolled in community college. The youth were recruited by service staff at drop-in centers, shelters, and other forms of transitional housing. Through semistructured interviews, the youth were asked about their perceptions of themselves, their knowledge of support services and how they used them, their social connections, and the barriers and supports they experienced while in community college. The researcher then coded the responses and categorized the data into three broad themes: housing and support services as critical resources; agency staff as key academic and social supports; and the tension surrounding the need to manage agency responsibilities, manage the demands of employment, and manage the need to attend college. Although the study only represents a small sample of students experiencing homelessness, their perspectives and voices provide valuable insights about an emerging and understudied issue.
- Youth saw higher education as their pathway to long-term stability and were striving toward college graduation.
- Youth suggested that housing, even when temporary, was a stabilizing factor that made college possible and provided them with the security they needed to focus on their education.
- Youth were clear that without the support of a housing agency and housing staff, there was little chance they would be able to attend college at all. The youth noted that agency staff, particularly educational specialists and case managers, were more helpful than the academic counselors at their colleges.
- Youth shared the stress and anxiety they felt about the looming end of their temporary housing opportunities. One participant shared her struggle to try and finish her associate’s degree before the end of her housing program so she could work full time to support her pursuit of new housing.
- Some youth struggled to meet their housing agency’s employment requirements in their pursuit of higher education. The insistence on employment forced youth to spend less time on their education, forcing some to reduce their enrollment to half time and others to drop out of school entirely.
- Beyond employment, participants shared that other housing agency requirements, such as scheduled meal times and mandatory curfews, made it difficult to manage their time and meet all their responsibilities at work and at school.
- The author notes that if housing providers intend to support youth to be economically sufficient adults, policy and practice must fund, develop, and support work exceptions that allow participation in higher education. Further, program evaluations that inform the allocation of funding to housing providers who serve youth experiencing homelessness should incorporate metrics on enrollment, academic success, and completion of educational goals.
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