Where are homeless college students supposed to go during school breaks?

written by Lisa Stand
November 4, 2013

“I’m in college, and I’m homeless.” This was the subject line of an email to hundreds of thousands of subscribers to change.org. Change.org is a website that helps everyday citizens generate petitions and seek public support for various causes. This particular petition is directed at administrators of a college in Michigan. The petitioner is a student – we’ll call her JM – who needs to be allowed to stay in her dorm during Winter Break. She has no other place to live during such periods when most students leave campus and go home. More than 113,000 supporters had signed JM’s petition as of today. 

More than creatively advocating on her own behalf, JM powerfully calls attention to one of the many challenges and barriers faced by college students who are homeless. Homeless youth in college are diverse in background and they experience homelessness under different circumstances. JM shares her own story on her petition’s web page. Research shows that many homeless youth have recently exited foster care into young adulthood, without the social connections and family-like supports most of us take for granted. 

Around 20,000 foster youth exit care every year, reaching an age when benefits end in their states. Many do not finish high school and very few go to college as JM has done. With the help of federal programs like Fostering Connections, their prospects can improve. Fostering Connections allows states to offer financial support beyond age 18. These additional resources, combined with other assistance, can support young people through a critical transition period – helping with education and job training, for instance. About half of states have chosen to offer Fostering Connections.

Even with extra help, however, housing will be an issue for disconnected young adults who manage to succeed at college.  Quoting from JM’s petition:  “During their studies, it is essential for [foster and homeless students] to have a semi-permanent and stable housing situation, especially because this vulnerable population may have lacked such in the past. Excluding foster and homeless students from exempt fall and spring break stays, as well as expunging them for the three week winter holiday break, could have major negative impacts on their mental and physical health, their ability to perform in school, their ability to attend school, and so many more important aspects of their lives.”

As JM notes on her petition’s web page, some colleges have adopted policies to accommodate students who do not have housing options for the break periods. Yet “there are thousands of other students -- some who are homeless, some who were in foster care, others who have lost their parents or guardians -- who are also affected by this issue across the country.” 

Kudos to JM for highlighting this issue. Homeless advocates can follow her lead: Ask colleges and universities in your communities to adopt housing policies that support vulnerable and at-risk students living on campus.