The phrase "homeless college student" sounds like a contradiction to many. If someone has enough money to pay the outrageous cost of tuition, how could they be homeless? Sadly, this statement is not a contradiction. In fact, it is a growing problem on college campuses. The HOPE Lab at University of Wisconsin surveyed 70 community colleges across 24 states and found that 14 percent of the students involved in the study were homeless.
After reading that, I wondered how that number translated to four-year higher education institutions, such as Ramapo College, the college I attend. When I was unable to find sufficient information online, I turned to a fellow college student who previously struggled with homelessness.
Vanessa Mirasola is a senior at Ramapo College majoring in sociology with a minor in criminology. Despite the stress associated with being homeless for the better part of her early college career, she is managing to graduate a whole semester early.
Mirasola has been on her own since graduating high school and received no support in her decision to go to college. She has no "parental monetary pipeline," as she puts it, and holds a full-time job with the Bergen County Attorney Ethics Committee on top of being a full-time student. It is because of student loans that she has the funds to be at Ramapo College; they cover virtually all of her tuition.
Mirasola struggled with homelessness, living out of her car at times because student loans do not cover the cost of living on campus. Most full-time jobs offered to college students do not pay nearly enough to afford on-campus housing, much less an apartment in Northern Jersey, on top of the rest of her bills. At 19, she lucked out and found affordable off-campus housing and the job she has now.
While she faced a number of seemingly insurmountable struggles, she says the hardest part of being homeless was finding a place to go on school breaks.
"The hardest part was everyone gearing up for the holidays or summer break when for me, it really meant I had to find a place to store my belongings and someone willing to house me for a few months," she says. "Interim housing is not available for the whole duration of a break and it’s very expensive."
The stigma attached to homelessness only made things harder on Mirasola.
"I was ashamed to admit to myself that I didn’t make enough money to live off of, and I shouldn’t have felt that way," she says. "Who goes to college full time and can earn a living wage without a degree? But, I did nonetheless. My friends could spend their working money on new clothes and food and mine went towards saving for a deposit on an apartment. Additionally, not having parents, especially due to violence, carries a stigma within itself. I felt people assumed I must be stupid or weird or crazy because my mother murdered my father, and [because] the rest of my family is essentially impoverished and I [have] had zero financial help from anyone. Everyone assumes that attending college means you have money, and to some degree it does. But for people like me who get a large amount of financial aid, our tuition is covered but not much else. Many people can’t wrap their heads around having $13,000 to attend school but not enough money for food and rent, when in actuality it’s a serious problem."
And Mirasola knew others in similar situations.
"[My friend] slept in her car for a majority of the semester that I hung out with her."
Unfortunately, Ramapo College did not make the situation easier on either of them.
"They made my situation harder in some ways," she says. "They threatened to kick me out of housing when I couldn’t afford a TB test. They also lost my financial aid paperwork several times, forcing me to make copies of my father’s death certificate multiple times, which, as you can imagine, wasn’t really fun for me."
One college that is doing an excellent job combating homeless among its college students is UCLA. They have a homeless shelter specifically for their students, regardless of degree level. Knowing this, I asked her what she thought Ramapo College, and colleges in general, could do in order to help their homeless students.
"We need a wider range of services for students and cheaper interim housing that covers the WHOLE break, not just a few weeks of it," she says. "There are showers in the Bradley Center, but they are not advertised and there should be a way that students can purchase food on campus using EBT or SNAP. I think that housing costs should exist on a sliding scale, and if you are an independent student as indicated by FAFSA, like me, you should be able to either receive a reduction in cost or should be given some sort of housing voucher."
Looking ahead to the future, Mirasola has one sentiment she would like to get across to Ramapo College's administration.
"Not every student’s biggest problem is finals," she says. "We are not all happy-go-lucky students with wealthy parents enjoying our college years. Some of us face stressors that most don’t experience until their 30's and 40's. [Adding] school work on top of all that with little assistance from the school doesn’t make our already hard lives easier."
There is no doubt in my mind that there are many more college students across the country who are in situations similar to Mirasola's. No one should be put in a financial position where they can afford college tuition, but have to live out of their car. That is unacceptable. There needs to be reform in higher education that provides safety nets for students who are homeless. Thanksgiving and winter break will be here before we know it, and the only thing I can think of is what homeless students at Ramapo College will do while the rest of their peers return to a roof that their families provide over their head.
Writer's note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.
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