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Homeless Crisis Among Students in Higher Education: A Call to Action

Frances W. Siu, Ph.D., C.R.C., California State University, Los Angeles

“Giving is not just about making a donation, it’s about making a difference.”

-Kathy Calvin

The once hidden epidemic of homeless college students has come front and center stage of higher education social issues in the U.S.  A Fall 2018 survey of nearly 86,000 students, shows 18% of two-year college students and 14% of 4-year college students reported being homeless, while there are close to three times higher rates (60% of the 2-year college students and 48% of the 4-year college students) of students at risk of homelessness due to their struggle to pay rent (Jones, 2019). In California, Los Angeles Times (Xia, 2016) reported one in ten California State University (CSU) students underwent homelessness in 2016.  The epidemic of homeless college student population parallels to the intense upsurge in the number of homeless families. The extended period of recession, hiking cost of living, mechanic/robotic replacement of manual labor such as online shopping instead of retail store patronage, and the large numbers of unskilled American workers who continue to trail behind other sectors of the workforce, have intensely impacted low-income families (Huang, Fernandez, Rhoden & Joseph, 2018). 

Corresponding to the education budget for this country, allocated funds to remedy the growing homeless crisis is insufficient. Broton and Goldrick-Rab (2016) indicated that “at the federal level, educational and social policies have not caught up to the challenge. The current social safety net typically excludes college students with financial need from receiving support.” To make ends meet, these students change their choice of groceries, alter their eating habits,  reduce food intake, work more, socialize less, borrow money and/or use credit cards, defer paying bills, and reschedule medical and dental care while not buying required textbooks and school supplies.  In the state of financial insecurity, homeless college students often struggle with getting human basic biological needs for survival: a stable shelter and safety, meals to fuel their bodies and warmth to survive the weather. It can be stressful and difficult to focus on school when a student is unsure where to sleep at night and if food is available when hunger attacks (Jones, 2019).  Huang and his associates (2018) also found that youths aged out of the foster care system are a part of the homeless college student population facing similar vulnerability.  College students believe that higher education is a viable option to better lives, but homelessness endangers their ability to succeed.  Without stability in their lives, homeless college students are expected to encounter negative life trajectory (Huang, 2018).

In response to the growing homeless student population at the macro-level, California Assembly Bill 801 Postsecondary Education: Success for Homeless Youth in Higher Education Act executed on September 1, 2016 provides certain level of financial aid to homeless youths under the age of 25 and verified to be homeless at any time during the two years preceding the student’s application for admission by a university or community college (Guzman-Lopez, 2019).  At the meso-level, higher education institutes have initiated programs addressing the homeless students’ needs such as food pantries, childcare, health insurance coverage, and allowing community college students living in their cars to park overnight on campus (Klitzman, 2018).  In addition, institutions should implement programs relevant to helping and advocating for homeless students as a part of student success initiatives.  

At the micro-level and in addition to the food pantries, colleges negotiate with school cafeterias and food vendors to offer free meal vouchers distributed through different programs. Student organizations work with vendors to donate surplus edible items to those students in need (Broton and Goldrick-Rab, 2016).  The authors also found that students have an increased sense of belonging and integration with the institute when administrators promote poverty-alleviation supports as an additional student service such as tutoring, academic advising, or wellness programs rather than as a supplemental service for marginalized students. Peer mentorship is valuable to the physical and mental health of this homeless student population. The sharing of resources and experiences can be helpful in minimizing the impacts of various challenges that make the choice to college less dauting for students experiencing homelessness (Huang et al., 2018). 

In the name of humanity, we need to meet students’ basic needs for them to be able to be fully present in the classroom so that they will apply it, learn, and take it forward.


Broton, K., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016, February). The dark side of college (un)affordability: Food and housing insecurity in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48, 16-25.

Guzman-Lopez, A. (2019, March 7). One in five of California’s community college students are homeless. News: LAist Website. Retrieved from community_college_students_are_hurting_for_food_and_housing.php

Huang, H., Fernandez, S., Rhoden, M., & Joseph, R. (2018). Serving former foster youth and homeless students in college. Journal of Social Service Research, 44(2), 209-222.

Jones, C. (2019, June 10). Homelessness among college students growing crisis. USA Today. Retrieved from

Klitzman, C. (2018). College student homelessness: A hidden epidemic. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 51(4) 588-619.

Xia, R. (2016). One in ten Cal State students is homeless, study finds. LA Times. Retrieved from