Action Project

Absence of emergency housing perpetuates student homelessness

Image By: Betsy Osterberger and Betsy Osterberger

The first time Brooke Evans saw the word “homelessness” related to higher education was when she was filling out the FAFSA (or Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in 2010, where it wasn’t well-explained and implied that she was not homeless, even though that was not the case.

Evans, a senior at UW-Madison, experienced homelessness as a freshman at UW-LaCrosse and then after she transferred to UW-Madison in the fall of 2012.

Upon her arrival at Madison, Evans said there were no resources a homeless student could utilize; emergency housing and explicit affordable housing did not, and do not, exist.

“How does someone do everything right and then become homeless?” Evans said. “There’s this mentality that if you’re homeless it means there’s something defective, deficient, deviant or disabled about your decision-making or your agency. That’s not true.”

Evans stated there is a generational and societal divide between how individuals perceive homelessness.

According to Evans, the “lowest hierarchy” of being homeless is to be sleeping outside, completely subjected to the elements, sexual exploitation, assault and theft.

However, Evans thinks that is one case, and on a college campus, circumstances can differ.

“To be couch surfing is to be homeless,” Evans said. “Living in your car is being homeless.”

Part of the invisibility of this demographic comes from a lack of data.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, run by Sara Goldrick-Rab, has been the only organization gathering statistics for homeless students at UW-Madison and throughout the state of Wisconsin.

Within a city of 250,000 people, an accurate measurement of homeless students remains largely unstudied, according to Ald. Zach Wood, District 8, who is also a UW-Madison alum.

There are theoretical ways in which data could be collected, Wood said; however, the dilemma of homeless students and the lack of affordable housing is a relatively new issue that UW-Madison and universities across the country are facing.

According to Wood, this demographic has only been brought to the city in the past couple of years.

“Just because it’s brand new in the news doesn’t make it new,” Evans said.

Wood said there are other universities that have on-campus student emergency housing, or that allow students to stay in dorms at reduced rates, but UW-Madison does not offer such accommodations.

Carmen Goséy, a sophomore at UW-Madison and ASM Legislative Affairs chair, said if she was an out-of-state student from a lower socio-economic background, she would be hesitant to attend this university; tuition is incredibly high, and housing is a separate entity.

ASM recently created its own food pantry, allowing low-income students access to adequate nutrition.

But this action does not solely address the demographic of homeless students.

Goséy said if there was an affordable option to live on campus it would be utilized. However, she thinks affordable housing and emergency housing do not coincide.

“You have full-time students here. You have students investing here,” Goséy said. “It’s our job to help aid people’s success. It is up to the entire university to do this.”

According to Goséy, raising awareness is the first and most important step in addressing this issue, which has been greatly underreported.

Awareness exposes the circumstances homeless students face, and those who listen are morally forced to respond, Goséy said.

Hayley Young, administrative assistant at Seventhwave and UW-Madison alumna, said homelessness among students is not something people ordinarily expect.

Young is currently in the running for the County Board district 5 seat and said she hopes to address the issue of homelessness in Madison if elected.

According to Young, what many students face is housing and food insecurity, where the plan a student has for tonight and the plan for tomorrow might not necessarily be the same thing.

“We need to normalize the fact that people do have financial struggles in college,” Young said. “When we’re talking about tuition and when we’re talking about student loan finance reform, you’re having a broader conversation about people having a successful college experience.”

Young emphasized the importance of utilizing the resources available for UW-Madison students in financial distress, many of which do not realize such are available to them.

The ASM food pantry, Tenant Resource Center and Tenants Rights Organization are pillars students can access when in need of advising.

Those resources don’t completely solve the problems students face; they are not all specifically aimed to students and they are not necessarily well-advertised by the university, despite the growing number of students reporting housing insecurity, according to Young.

“It's not acceptable that we're keeping someone from being able to receive the degree that can change and direct the entire trajectory of their life because we can't come up with enough resources to make sure that they're successful,” Young said.

According to Evans, professors have either approached her with concern or have detached themselves from her in fear of academic nepotism; she thinks administrators search for something about students like herself that somehow constitute them not being Badgers.

But Evans addressed the belief that everyone who gets to higher education somehow becomes middle class as false.

“We want more impoverished people to be in college,” she said. “That’s good for equality, but once they’re here you have to do something about them.

Update: This article was updated at 4:25 p.m. to reflect that Evans experienced homelessness as a freshman at UW-LaCrosse, and then after her transfer to UW-Madison. 

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