*Michael carries his backpack nearly everywhere — a backpack so tightly bundled that he has to lean his weight on it so the zipper doesn’t break when he closes it. It may be hard for some people to imagine fitting every worldly possession they own into a backpack, but he does it daily.
Michael, age 19, has been homeless since April 2017.
He spent the past quarter of school attending classes at Everett Community College, working toward his associate’s degree, spending hours bussing back and forth between the Everett campus and the shelter he was staying at in Seattle’s International District.
“It is challenging. I feel a weight on my shoulders,” he says. “I have to walk at least an hour to two hours a day… I feel constantly hungry because there are some days where I'll go like seven hours without eating.”
Michael is transgender. His previous home wasn’t a safe space.
“My mom was transphobic,” he says. “The day I left… she told me that if I left, I couldn’t come back to the house... She told me I was disgraceful.”
“I couldn’t be in a place where I wasn’t accepted for being my true self… I couldn’t be at a place where someone pushed me to the edge of wanting to kill myself. I just couldn’t do it.”
So, he left.
“I was like ‘Even though I might be going to a shelter, at least I might be in a place where people accept me for who I am,’” he says.
As a transgender person of color, Michael reflects some of the most sobering data on who is impacted by homelessness. Most estimates put LGBTQ people at less than 7 percent of the population. Yet a 2017 county survey found that 29 percent of homeless youth identified as LGBTQ. The same report found that people of color represent about 53 percent of homeless youth, despite people of color only accounting for 29 percent of King County’s total population.
“Often college students who experience homelessness… have an intersection of identities that contribute to the marginalization they face,” says Anthon Smith, executive director of Seattle Education Access (SEA), a nonprofit that provides higher education advocacy and support to King County youth, such as Michael.
Note: I will try to standardize all data into the same excel template so they all look consistent. Possibly will introduce infographics for some of the bigger stats. http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Durso-Gates-LGBT-Homeless-Youth-Survey-July-2012.pdf
An Invisible problem
On campus, Michael looks like any other student as he walks the carefully manicured pathways between brick buildings. On campus, his homelessness is invisible.
“A major misconception with being homeless is that ‘all homeless people do drugs, all homeless people are bad,’” Michael says. “There are homeless people like me who are homeless because of an unsafe environment, who are homeless because abuse and neglect happened in their life.”
His experience as a homeless community college student has been a constant juggle of trying to meet his own basic needs — coordinating between shelter schedules, securing food and transportation, attending classes and doing homework.
“There are so many tropes about homelessness,” says Penny Lipsou, an education advocate with Seattle Education Access who has worked with Michael.
While Seattle’s “tent cities” garner many of the headlines on homelessness, the people living in organized tent encampments represent a fraction of Seattle’s housing insecure and homeless. King County’s 2017 annual tally found a total homeless population of about 12,000, about the the same size of many of Washington’s towns.
But these counts, don’t track how many of Seattle’s homeless people are also in college.
More comprehensive data is collected on K-12 students in public schools in order to help provide support to students experiencing housing insecurity.
Sidebar: Federal homeless definition
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as as "individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” and provides the following examples: on:
- Sharing housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship
- Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds
- Living in emergency or transitional shelters
- Abandoned in hospitals
- Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations or any other locations not ordinarily used for sleeping accommodations
The data shows an ominous trend: Since 2006, the number of homeless children enrolled in U.S. public schools has nearly doubled.
When homeless students leave high school, the tracking and support disappear. The only measure of homelessness among college students is collected when students apply for financial aid. In 2007, Congress expanded the definition of “independent student” on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to include homeless youth, allowing applicants to apply for loans and grants without having to submit documentation of their parents’ income.
For people in crisis, gathering financial aid documentation and figuring out how to pay for college can feel overwhelming. Even something as simple as providing an identification card can pose a challenge. Michael lost his ID when his wallet was stolen while he staying in a shelter.
“Being homeless, you don't have a super-safe place where you can put your Social Security card,” Michael says.
Michael’s situation is not unique. Nearly 1,500 homeless youth applied for financial aid in Washington state in the 2015-2016 school year, making it eighth highest nationwide.
Today’s needs vs. tomorrow’s debt
Most college students today have to take on debt to pay for school, and Michael is among them. He obtained grants and loans. But for Michael, the challenge of paying for college is often overshadowed by more basic needs like finding food and shelter.
But Michael’s situation may be becoming more normal. About half of community college students don’t have reliable housing, according to a new report based on the largest survey ever conducted of college student needs.
In addition, about two-thirds lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
Attending college sometimes disqualifies people from getting food stamps and other assistance. To qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Michael needs to work 20 hours per week.
“But the thing is, it's hard to get a job when you have everything else you have to focus on — whether it's housing, school, mental/physical health — that's difficult,” he says.
“Being homeless is really a full-time job,” says SEA Advocate Penny Lipsou. “We’ve been trying to make sure that Michael is stable in other aspects of his life, so that when he is in school… he’ll be really successful.”
Michael is planning to transfer to Seattle Central Community College, which is closer to homeless shelters where he has been staying.
College: A changing landscape
Michael’s dreams are big — some might even call them lofty. He dreams of singing and playing guitar with a band he’ll call “The Remedies.”
“Or, maybe I could be a teacher?” he muses. He has a hungry mind.
Students working toward their dreams through higher education, like Michael, face a different landscape than previous generations did. Ballooning tuition costs have outpaced cost of living more than two-fold. Annual borrowing has nearly tripled since 1990.
The federal Pell Grant and State Need Grant programs were established to help low-income students attend college without getting buried in debt, but any increases in grant money have been vastly outpaced by rising expenses, Lipsou says.
“Back in the day, folks could get financial aid that would help them pay for rent, that would help them with food and sustain them while they were in school,” Lipsou says. “Now, financial aid barely covers your tuition…. We just don't have systems in place to really accommodate students who are low-income.”
Adding to the problem are predatory lending practices, which often target low-income students. In January, State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Navient, an offshoot of student-loan giant Sallie Mae, alleging multiple deceptive lending and debt collection practices.
Embedded video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9j77O_q6-M&feature=youtu.be
The bill would create the position of student loan ombuds to hear complaints from students. It would also provide the State Attorney General’s office with additional tools to prosecute loan servicers who mislead or defraud students.
“These protections are two-fold — to assist students who have been victimized and to establish a deterrent to companies that would exploit students in the future,” says bill sponsor Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood. “This legislation won’t eliminate homelessness overnight.... But this legislation will help those whose student loans might trigger homelessness or whose path out of homelessness is an education they cannot afford.”
Now, more than ever, college graduates are finding that acquiring a college degree is not the panacea it once was. But for students like Michael, these resources and incremental changes can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.
“What keeps me going is seeing other people that have faced similar stuff as me,” says Michael. “So, I ask myself this… ‘What would future Michael want to be?’”
Future Michael would want to be empathetic and treat people with respect, he says. Future Michael would want to be educated.
Editor’s note: *Full name has been withheld at request of the interviewee.