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Addressing Student Homelessness & Housing Insecurity

This is a three-part series introducing a topic that is surprisingly invisible to most people – but not to most college students. In the first part, we will introduce the crisis of basic needs insecurities that more and more students are facing in Oregon and throughout the country. In the second, we will give an example of what Tacoma Community College and the Tacoma Housing Authority are doing to address this issue regionally. And, in the third part, we’ll talk about what College Housing Northwest is doing to make a difference in providing housing for all college studdents, and especially our efforts to team with other to address student homelessness and housing insecurity.

Introduction
Classes. Textbooks. Essays. Tests. Attendance. Finals. Tuition. Graduation.

Among all the challenges facing today’s college students, something critical is going overlooked: affordable access to safe, secure housing—the foundation of success for any pursuit, let alone four-plus years of academic rigor.

Today’s college students are struggling with homelessness and housing insecurity at rates that have never been seen before. Homelessness means that a student is without a place to live, often residing in a local shelter, an automobile, on a friend’s couch, or outside, sometimes without even a tent over their heads. Housing insecurity includes a broader set of challenges, including high housing costs relative to income, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, or overcrowding.

As a result of their struggle to find safe, secure and affordable housing, students—especially those most vulnerable and in-need—are suffering, and so are the communities they live in. Lower graduation rates negatively affect the health, well being, and future prospects of our students, and feed the cycle of poverty among those most in need of assistance. This struggle demands the attention of public housing authorities, local governments, educational institutions, and housing providers, and calls on them to find new and innovative ways to address this growing problem.

This paper will illustrate the magnitude of issues facing students, as well as solutions being developed through innovative partnerships in communities around the nation. Together, we can drive student success through safe, secure and supportive housing.

What We Know: Students and Basic Needs Insecurity
The first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is all about securing the necessities for survival: food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep. However, studies surrounding college-level student success have rarely addressed these as a part of their investigations. It wasn’t until recently—as the crisis of college affordability loomed alongside the rising cost of living in America— that researchers began to take note of food and housing insecurity among collegiate populations.

Findings from the most recent nationwide study, produced by The Hope Center (Formerly The Hope Lab), underscore the need for this focus. This study found that over half of community college students are housing insecure: 50% experience housing unaffordability and instability, and 17% are outright homeless.

Additionally, 42% of students at 171 community colleges across the nation are food insecure, experiencing reductions in the quality and/or quantity of their diet. Almost half of students surveyed report that they are worried about their food supply.

These basic needs insecurities impact vulnerable populations the most, including women, post-foster care students, people of color, and LGBTQ+ students, as well as those with children or receiving federal assistance for tuition.

Add ballooning tuition costs, limited job prospects, and massive student debt to to the list and it’s apparent why more students than ever are struggling. Every one of these factors negatively affects academic performance, but taken in aggregate, the crisis is clear. And its impact goes far deeper than academia.

The Local Impact of Student Housing Insecurity
Safe, secure and affordable housing is integral to student success. Without it, students suffer all manner of ill effects: higher stress levels that lead to lower academic performance, greater instances of mental health crises, and the need to travel further and further from their colleges and universities in order to afford housing. These all directly correlate with lower graduation rates.

In Oregon, the local housing crisis is being deeply felt, but what’s widely unacknowledged is the fact that a large and growing number of community college students experience housing insecurity.

Housing Insecurity & Homelessness

Recent studies by the The Hope Center indicated that nationally 50% of community college students experience housing insecurity, and 17% are homeless. Compare that with local numbers for Oregon, where 52% of community college students are housing insecure, and 20% are homeless.

Just as student housing insecurity has a cascading effect for the students themselves, those effects carry over into our community. Oregon is in a constant struggle to improve our dropout rates, and housing instability is a primary factor. Students who fail to graduate are much more likely to need affordable or subsidized housing resources, further burdening Oregon’s already swamped system.

The impacts continue into our local and state economy. For every student that drops out of a 4-year degree program, we lose an average of $278,000 to the local economy, $44,000 in local and state taxes, and $771 in charitable gifts that would be given over that student’s lifetime. And of course, cities with weaker educational institutions are less attractive to employers who need skilled workers.

Even students who graduate currently pose a burden on our economy. The massive debt students incur to attend school means that graduating students are more likely to either seek affordable housing after college—of which there is already a drastic shortage—or leave Portland for more affordable places, causing the city to suffer from an exodus of knowledge, skill, and income.

Next week we’ll talk about what we refer to as The Tacoma Model for addressing student homelessness and housing insecurity.

Please reach out to us with your experience around this issue at info@chnw.org.

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