Homelessness Among Students

It is hard to imagine someone who is getting an advanced degree—which only about 10% of Americans ever achieve—as being in the same position as the stereotypical homeless panhandler huddled on a street corner, but many graduate students are, in fact, homeless.

When Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab tweeted that she had just met a homeless Rutgers graduate student begging on the streets, someone tweeted back:

"I went to grad school... took loans out for room and board. I don't understand why she's homeless."

It is something a lot of people don’t understand. As Wayne State University Professor Paul Toro says, people believe that, “If you’re someone who has the wherewithal to get yourself into college, well, of course you should be immune to homelessness. But that just isn’t the case.”

So what is the case? Read on to learn why so many grad students are homeless, how it affects their mental health, and what’s being done to help.  Is this a problem of interest to you? Many degrees are geared to deal with social problems like this, including programs in social work, public health, public administration, and counseling psychology

What Went Wrong?

With housing and tuition costs soaring, the financial deck is stacked against students these days.

Crushing Debt Loads

Add in the fact that graduate students are often already saddled with undergraduate debt and it becomes incredibly difficult to make ends meet. In the past, graduate students earned money from research assistantships, internships, teaching assistant positions, but that is not always the case any longer.

Lack of Jobs

Many positions are not full-time, or simply do not exist. While any number of situations can lead to homelessness, graduate students most often cite these five factors as the cause.

1 - Lack of Affordable Housing

Many graduate students simply can’t afford housing, the cost of which has skyrocketed. Experts say we’re at the extreme end of a nationwide student housing crisis. There have been “decades of federal divestment in affordable housing,” says Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.

Even if students get a side job, it’s rarely enough, as the gap between minimum wage and housing costs has increased, and federal housing subsidies have decreased.

2 - Roommate Issues

We’ve all had our share of problem roommates: they don’t do the dishes or they play loud music or they keep everyone up at night. But some roommate problems are much more dire and result in eviction. Sometimes roommates don’t pay their share of the bills and rent; or they steal others’ share of the bills and rent to spend on themselves; or they simply disappear. Any one of these scenarios can leave a graduate student out on the streets.

3 - Landlord Issues

Graduate students are at the mercy of their landlords. A landlord can raise the rent suddenly; fail to make necessary repairs resulting in a shutdown of the building; sell the building; or decide to stop renting out the building. Any of these situations can leave students homeless.

4 - Financial Emergencies

When you’re living on a shoestring, it doesn’t take much to make it snap. One unexpected bill, one unexpected event can cause a grad student to be unable to make rent payments.

5 - Financial Aid Issues

Often, financial aid isn’t enough to cover a grad student’s costs: food, rent, tuition, books and incidentals all add up. Furthermore, financial aid packages frequently do not come through until after school has already started. This means a student may have months without any means to secure a place to live.

Says formerly homeless student Mik McAllister:

“Some landlords may understand this and allow the student to pay the back rent when the financial aid [comes], but landlords like this are very scarce these days.”

Here’s How Homelessness Affects Mental Health

Many people are aware that mental illness is a contributing factor to a person becoming homeless, but it works both ways: homelessness can cause mental illness Homelessness is stressful, isolating and depressing. /Being homeless is a traumatic event that can result in anxiety, depression and sleeplessness. Sacramento State student Arthur Chavez recalls that having to live out of his car gave him feelings of panic.

Shame

Homelessness can also cause students feelings of shame. Doctoral candidate Louis Tse of UCLA kept the fact that he lived in his car a secret: “I don’t want to be seen as a …I don’t want to be treated differently, I think…I have, I guess I also sort of house a little bit of fear or embarrassment. Shame can be paralyzing and toxic, creating feelings of insecurity and worthlessness.

Moreover, if a student has had any mental health issues in the past, the uncertainty, shame and overall stress of homelessness can exacerbate preexisting issues.

Sleep Deprivation and Hunger

We can’t talk about homelessness without talking about sleep deprivation and hunger

Lack of food and sleep come along with homelessness, and both of these can lead to mood and mental health issues. For graduate students, who are under extreme pressure to perform intellectually, sleep and nutrition are crucial. Without a place to sleep, and not enough money to eat, graduate students simply cannot function adequately.

Did You Know?

Even partial sleep deprivation has an effect on mood and mental health.

It is difficult to get a good night’s sleep when you are crashing on a couch, a floor, a street bench or the back seat of a car, and don’t even know where you’ll be tomorrow. Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood; and chronic sleep deprivation can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression.

“There's a big relationship between psychiatric and psychological problems and sleep,” says Dr. Lawrence Epstein, Medical Director of Sleep Health Centers and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Sleep deprivation also makes it harder for students to learn, which adds to their stress level: when people are deprived of sleep for even one night, it is much more difficult to memorize new information.

Hunger Negatively Impacts a Student’s Mental Health Condition

In addition to being homeless, many grad students are going hungry. Not having enough money for housing, they don’t have money for sufficient food either. One George Washington University grad student explains that:

“Sometimes it’s hard to prioritize the healthy eating component, because you know you have these bills that have to get paid regardless of the fact; so you kind of sacrifice the healthy eating.”

While some undergraduate programs have a mandatory meal plan that ensures students get at least a meal, grad students do not have that equivalent.

Welcome to Being Food Insecure

Food insecurity, defined as lack of reliable access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food, has a negative impact on mental health in 3 extremely serious ways.

  1. Being food insecure is stressful. Being uncertain about whether and how you will get your next meal can provoke a stress response that contributes to anxiety and depression in students.
  2. Being food insecure carries a stigma: Students who experience food insecurity hoard food, or seek out places that offer free snacks or meals. Having to acquire food by unconventional means can create feelings of shame and guilt that can lead to depression.
  3. Being food insecure forces students to make stressful decisions: Students have to choose which necessity they should prioritize that day.

Will they buy food, books or medications? Will they make their car payment or phone payment?

This increased stress can lead to a rise in depression and anxiety.

Grad Students Are High-Risk

Here’s the really scary part: Grad students are already at a higher risk for mental health issues

A study by Nature Biotechnology shows that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.

Anxiety & Depression

Based on 2279 responses, mostly from Ph.D. candidates based in 234 institutions across 26 countries, there are “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression” among the graduate population.

Other Mental Problems

This increased risk of mental health is attributed to social isolation, the often abstract nature of students’ studies, poor job prospects, and “imposter syndrome.” Impostor syndrome is the belief that one is not as intelligent or talented as people perceive them to be, and that they will eventually be discovered as a fraud. 

One Berkeley graduate student said:

“There is a deep, pervasive anxiety that seeps into every day of your life, a constant questioning of your capability, intelligence, and whether or not you are cut out to be here.”

Being in an academic environment that is so elite and intense also makes finding a work-life balance extremely difficult; in the grad school culture, drive and sacrifice are rewarded. This stressful graduate school climate coupled with the acute stress of homelessness create a mental health crisis that is significantly impacting homeless graduate students’ well-being.

What’s Being Done to Fight Homelessness Among Students?

Along with a fellow student Luke Shaw, Louis Tse of UCLA opened up a student-run shelter for students. Students for Students provides a place to eat, sleep, socialize, and study during the school year.

Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab started the Faculty And Students Together (FAST) Fund, which provides money to teachers who can get emergency money to students swiftly.

Several schools such as Michigan State University have set up food banks to help with students’ food insecurity

Humboldt State in California has started a home-share program that matches students with elderly residents. At Chico State in California, students can access free hotel vouchers for short-term stays, and the campus will co-sign apartment leases.

The California legislature is considering a bill that would give bonuses to developers who build student housing wherein one-fifth of the beds are designated for low-income students.

There's Help Online

Websites exist that are designed to help students in need of housing: On Sublet, students can search for cheap apartments and also place ads.

On HUD Exchange, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development offers resources and links to assist the homeless with finding housing. The homeless programs and initiatives include support for LGBTQ youth.

Student Housing lists available student apartments, provides roommate matching and offers training programs for becoming a community assistant or resident assistant.

In addition to dealing with graduate students’ housing situations, schools must address the mental health concerns that are part and parcel of being in grad school. Therapists and researchers are realizing that the issues with which graduate students struggle are unique.

Lumping mental health services for undergrads and grads together isn’t enough, because grad students face particular issues.

Now for Some Good News

On a positive note, initiatives aimed specifically at improving graduate student mental health have emerged in the last decade. Johns Hopkins University created a report that examined ways to better support student mental health and well-being on campus.

At UC Berkeley, two PhD students began a meditation workshop that teaches introspection, mindfulness and stress management to students.

Lack of affordable housing for graduate students is a true crisis that negatively impacts mental health and well-being. Fortunately, these damaging circumstances are slowly coming to light and efforts are being made to ameliorate them.

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