How Campus Holiday Breaks Impact Students Experiencing Homelessness

portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
Published on December 17, 2021
Reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

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How Campus Holiday Breaks Impact Students Experiencing Homelessness

Students experiencing homelessness — a lack of regular and adequate sleeping arrangements — face additional problems when colleges and universities close their doors for holiday breaks. Housing needs often correspond with limited food access, transportation, and living supplies. These basic needs insecurities have increased among many student populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No Home for the Holidays

With less demand for on-campus facilities, many college and university dorms close during holiday breaks, forcing students who rely on school accommodations to find alternative solutions. The additional costs and stresses associated with finding shelter when dorms close and purchasing food when cafeterias close significantly impacts students experiencing homelessness. The perceived stigma and potential for embarrassment among peers can also prevent students from seeking campus housing support during breaks.

Moreover, not all scholarships or federal funds cover food and housing expenses, and those that do may be insufficient to cover all needs. School institutions hold an obligation to meet the basic needs of all students, regardless of income. Whether students enter college experiencing homelessness or encounter life changes while attending school, the institutional obligation remains the same.

Additionally, international students make up about 6% of college and university populations. Many of these students also find themselves with limited options during holiday breaks.

Hunger and Experiencing Homelessness Can Overlap

Food and housing insecurity often go hand in hand. When campus amenities close, experiences of hunger and homelessness can increase. Among students who experience food insecurity, more than 60% also experience housing insecurity.

In addition to effects on student wellbeing, food and housing insecurities negatively impact academic achievement. Experiencing homelessness can negatively impact attendance and credit completion, and food insecurity is often linked to lower academic grades.

Research reveals higher rates of food and housing insecurities among African American and Indigenous students. Additionally, students identifying as transgender or as first-generation also experience higher rates of homelessness and food insecurity.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, many students unexpectedly lost employment, on-campus housing, and access to food on campus. Additionally, according to a December 2020 Swipe Out Hunger report, 52% of students accessed food banks during the pandemic. These findings highlight the need for colleges and universities to provide accessible food sources — in addition to housing accommodations — throughout the year.

How Can Colleges and Universities Help Students During Campus Breaks?

Colleges and universities must first acknowledge — then openly discuss — student experiences with homelessness and food insecurity in order to determine needs and provide the necessary support.

Provide year-round housing. Make on-campus housing accessible throughout the whole year. Create emergency shelter options for last-minute needs. Consider waiving housing fees for low-income students and students experiencing homelessness.

Connect with community partners. Local shelters, apartment complexes, and host families can provide students with free or low-cost housing during holiday breaks (and throughout the year). Schools can also connect with restaurants and grocery stores that may offer low-cost and free food for students experiencing homelessness.

Establish anonymous year-round food pantries. Reduce the stigma associated with receiving free food by offering donations that don't require means-testing, a signup sheet, or peer interaction. Instead, students can pick up food at assigned times in designated areas.

Promote the availability of support systems. Understand that many college students experience homelessness, and continue to raise awareness about this issue. Develop comprehensive support systems, including financial aid and academic support, safe and secure housing, and food access throughout the whole year. Make sure that students know how they can access available services, in case they need assistance.

Engage students and faculty. Students can donate cafeteria meals or campus dollars, raise awareness about food and housing insecurity, and offer peer support. Bring programs like Swipe Out Hunger to campus as a foundation for students experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.

Resources for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Although schools have a responsibility to support all members of their student bodies, there are also noninstitutional resources that students experiencing homlessness can access to find additional help. These include the following:

Edquity: Edquity connects college students to financial aid they can use to cover emergency expenses. Students who download the app can access emergency cash grants, financial management tips, and funding opportunities to cover basic needs.

The Hope Center: The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice provides an extensive list of housing, healthcare, and food resources for college students experiencing homelessness. The center also offers a guide that focuses on additional needs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, including unemployment resources and bill reduction services.

Homeless Shelters Directory: This organization provides a regularly updated list of homeless shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, and connections to affordable housing and rental assistance programs.

USDA Food and Nutrition Services: Government resources and programs offer food assistance to individuals and families across the country. The USDA provides 20 programs that combat food insecurity.

Find Shelter: This U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program helps connect individuals who require assistance with housing, clothing, and healthcare resources. Students can find food pantries and access rental assistance funding through this network.

Feeding America: Feeding America hosts a local food bank search tool that allows students to find food resources across the country. The organization also provides information about preventing and countering food insecurity.

Conclusion

The number of students experiencing homelessness continues to rise. Holiday breaks should not create additional barriers to student livelihood. To ensure wellbeing and academic success, colleges and universities must prioritize all students' basic housing and food needs throughout the calendar year.


Feature Image: MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images / Contributor / Getty Images

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