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Forget Microaggressions, Some Students Face Hunger and Homelessness

The rising tide of victimhood culture on campuses is dismaying. From perpetual requests for trigger warnings at my own school, to a roving squad of microaggression investigators on the other side of the coast, emotional trauma is the top concern of today’s college activists.

Everyone who fails to completely kowtow to the leftist, nursery-school party line is subject to rebuke, including students who try to address more troubling concerns than microaggressions or the lack of gender diversity in STEM fields.

Unfortunately, the superficial holy trinity of intersectional oppression—race, class and gender— is largely blind to the more pernicious issues that students actually face: hunger and homelessness.

Many students teeter precariously between having just enough, and not having anything at all. There are many who go hungry or homeless. How can students prosper without food? Or without a safe place to sleep?

For students, these problems result from a simple lack of resources — an imbalance between one’s social and financial capital, and the resources needed for rent and food.

Thankfully, it is within all of our ability to help these struggling students. Not only is it within our capacity to help, but it is within our moral duty to do so.

As I recounted in an essay for the Columbia Spectator, the first time I was asked “what’s the best library to sleep in?” by a fellow student, I didn’t have an answer. Since then, I’ve heard from a dozen other students who have also faced homelessness. Now, not only can I give an answer (the biggest library on campus is the best to sleep in), but I also often give these students referrals to other students who would be willing to let them crash on their couch.

While I am currently blessed to not face these problems (as a full-scholarship student at an elite college) I still care deeply about them. Not because of my current situation, but because of my upbringing in the inner-city on welfare, which brought these issues into my consciousness long before they occur to most.

But don’t take my anecdotes and foreboding rhetoric as evidence. The statistics concur.

According to Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, half of community college students face food or housing insecurity; 20% of community college students face acute hunger, and 13% deal with homelessness. Reliable research on food insecurity is hard to come by for other schools; logically, there is an inverse correlation between the percent of homeless students, and the percent of very well-off students.

According to numbers available from the the US government, there were 58,000 students who were homeless in 2013. I suspect the true number may be higher. None of the students I know who have faced homelessness, or are at risk of facing it, are legally considered as such by the federal government. No college I am aware of keeps tabs on their struggling students.

Student homelessness happens for a number of reasons. This can include being ostracized from one’s family for being queer, or being subject to abuse from parents. It can also result from parental drug use, incarceration, or simply general decay of the extended family unit.

In addition to statistics, there are also those who have spoken out. For example, there is Anna Demidova, a student from Columbia who has spoken about sleeping in the school student center. There is Christine Janumala, a Columbia student who told the Hechinger Report that she has eaten from dumpsters. There’s the petition from Jessica McCormick, a student who petitioned her school for winter housing when she had nowhere to go. And there’s more.

For the students who face these issues, the Internet only chronicles a few of their tribulations. Their stories have been largely lost to our national consciousness.

Thankfully, there’s numerous ways to help. For hungry students, colleges can offer food pantries and emergency grants to needy students. They can also raise awareness of the fact that many low-income students many be eligible for food-stamps if they are on work-study. For homeless students, colleges can offer on-site free emergency housing, and allow students to stay on campus during winter and summer break.

The federal government can appropriate more money towards support services for students, including supporting food assistance. And nonprofits can help through resource allocation and programming for struggling students.

Unfortunately, in this social climate, these issues are not as glamorous as the fight for trans rights or women’s’ liberation. When the only hunger that most student activists have is for more safe spaces, real hunger is functionally irrelevant on most college campuses.

And while the siren song of microaggression paranoia is soaked up by the media, and trigger warnings are becoming de rigueur on campus, don’t let stories on the Internet fool you. The symbol of the perpetually aggrieved and coddled student popularized by the media hides the struggles of those truly in need.

Some college students have real problems; they need real help, and it’s our moral duty to step in. What would you do for a hungry college student?

 

Toni Airaksinen is a Urban Studies student at Barnard College in New York City. She has worked in the fields of youth development and environmental education. This article does not represent the views of any organizations she works with. She tweets @Toni_Airaksinen.

 

 

7 Comments

  1. prasad says

    Columbia College, one of the wealthier even of the Ivies, has I believe an extremely generous financial aid program. Not to mention loans that you may use to cover additional unanticipated living expenses, loans which don’t even accumulate interest till you start earning your large Columbia-inflected salaries.

    The author’s heart is in the right place, but when she speaks of legions of Columbia students starving, dumpster diving, sleeping on park benches and performing sexual favors for money, I can’t help wondering if this might not be a modern day instance of an ingenuous Margaret Mead type being told lurid tales by natives having fun with her.

  2. Lisa says

    No, this really happens. I came to nyc to go to new school, and once I was here my parents did not contribute what the school expected them to contribute. I remember laying down in union square park dizzy with hunger. By spring I was emaciated, underweight. It was awful. I did work part time but it was not enough money for food. Wound up dropping out, switching to cuny, getting a full time job and going to school in the evenings. (Also new school way too lefty for me). I knew other people this happened to – the parents don’t want the burden of the cost, and rather than being honest with their kids, they just don’t contribute their side of the cost and the kids have to figure out what to do. However, disagree with author – the school can’t take on this cost. The kids have to work. I’m more for public universities offering more night classes, so it’s possible to support yourself and go to school. Also knew kids who worked full time and took a full course load but I could not handle the stress.

  3. Peter says

    We cannot talk about “homelessness” or “hunger” unless we explain precisely what we mean when we use these terms.

    What exactly is “food and housing insecurity?” What does this actually mean, in specific, concrete terms? Does it mean “at any given moment in time there was some doubt as to whether or not an individual might be able to eat their next meal or make their next rent payment, even just as a fleeting thought?” or does it mean “actually living on the streets, with no food or shelter for days on end.” Which is it? It can’t be both. If it is, then we need to talk.

    Also, what does it mean that 13% “deal” with homelessness? Define “deal.” How long do they not have a roof over their heads? Please be specific. Where do they sleep: on the street or some makeshift dwelling, in a library, on a friend’s couch, in a shelter? The answer makes a world of difference. Again, if it’s “all of the above,” we need to talk.

    The next question is “Why?”

    Let me be painfully blunt. If you have 40 hours to spare by being a full-time college student AND you are hungry and homeless, the question is not “how do we help these college students get food and shelter?” The question is “why are they in college instead of working??”

    If you are in a precarious economic situation *because of college* –because you are not working to support the requirements of human life– the immediate, real-life solution is that you absolutely must drop out of school. The solution is not to make colleges even more expensive through “food pantries and grants for students.”

    Yes, yes. I realize it’s unbelievably harsh to suggest that anyone work. That mother nature makes us exert physical and mental effort in order to put food into our bellies and a roof over our head is truly cosmic injustice — because shouldn’t we all be sitting in a lecture hall pursuing our intellectual passions instead? But unfortunately, food and shelter happen to be two major requirements for human survival on this planet. The higher education industrial complex is not. If it just so happens that someone can’t have their higher education and eat their cake too, they need to make a choice.

    We are not talking about people who have severe mental illnesses that prevent them from functioning in society. We are not talking about a battered wife who has fled her spouse and has no other friends or family to stay with. We are not talking about orphaned street children. We are, as far as I know, talking about able-bodied bright, young men and women. Is “earning income through a full-time job” truly not on the table here – yet “emergency grants and food pantries” are? I’m sorry, what? If these students have no income while in college and have no way to eat or have shelter, how is engaging in a productive, income generating-activity NOT an actual solution? What am I missing here?

    • If you’re in a dead end job and hungry, you should have gone to college.
      If you’re in college to try to get qualifications for a better job (and still hungry), you should drop out and get a dead end job.
      Neoliberal life lessons.

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  5. Sorry but someone who was a hungry and homeless college student, the absolute last place I would receive sympathy (much less services or aid) was from groups devoted to maligning women’s studies or “sjws” or “crybullies” or whatever Marxist bogeywomyn its fashionanle to mock these days. Just look at Peter’s comment. The godawful sociology (not a science!!!) majors spending most of their days tearfully begging for triggerwarnings and single handedly destroying free speech spend their nights reading up on LGBT homelessness and poverty among single parent students. Sometimes in between sessions of shooting an effigy of the patriarchy they organize food drives and petition their student governments for assistance regarding these issues. WTF

    • Lisa says

      Exactly. The limousine liberals who went to New School were very focused on poverty of minorities but had contempt for poor whites – the attitude seemed to be, since you’re white you had all advantages, so it’s your loser family (they didn’t seem to get it that when you’re 18 or 19 & on your own there’s not too much you can do). Very classist, very arrogant. I understand my poverty was not their problem but the sneering attitude, holy cow. Another reason I became conservative.

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