Homeless - and going to college

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2010 - 9:11 PM

Statistics on homeless students are difficult to pin down, but advocates for the poor believe the numbers are up.

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Christopher Sparks is a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He spends his days at the college and his nights at the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light shelter. He has been staying there for about two years and is getting occasional work through a temp agency, he said.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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When he isn't attending classes, chances are Christopher Sparks, 32, is hunkered over a computer in the library at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). He's in his second year there, majoring in computer support and administrative network.

Sparks does not study at home because he does not have one.

He sleeps at the Salvation Army's Harbor Light homeless shelter on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. His bed is a mat on the floor with 80 other men.

"I hate it, but I have to survive," he said. "I wouldn't wish this situation on my worst enemy."

College officials and advocates for the poor say the economic downturn has spawned a phenomenon they're only beginning to measure and understand: college students with no stable housing, who sometimes show up at homeless shelters.

It's well-documented that as the economy tumbled, community college enrollment rose as students put off going to more expensive universities and some of the newly unemployed went back to school. But those weren't the only groups attracted to community college as a refuge from the weak economy.

"It is a growing trend that people who are persistently poor and unhoused are taking advantage of programs at community colleges," said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C.

Zakir Hussen, 22, came to the United States in September and is starting classes at MCTC next month. He studied at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia for three years. He said he got top grades and wants to eventually transfer to the University of Minnesota Medical School.

In the meantime, he has no money and is "living with some guys, sleeping on the floor," something he never envisioned he'd have to do when he came here. "I expected to be sleeping in some luxurious home," he said.

Reliable numbers scarce

Statistics on homeless college students are hard to come by. A federal homeless survey does not determine who is in college; nor does the well-known Wilder Research survey of homelessness in Minnesota.

An unscientific survey of 1,061 students this fall at MCTC found that 9.7 percent identified themselves as homeless. Since it was the first such survey, there was no way to determine whether the problem has gotten worse.

But those who deal with such students say they're seeing more of them and are looking for ways to help them.

"We are talking about people moving from place to place, or a family staying in a basement with no bedroom, or some people who were staying in a shelter," said Ugaso Sheik-Abdi, president of a group called Wellness Advocates for You. Sheik-Abdi, a student, conducted the survey.

MCTC enrolls about 14,500 students. The survey also found that 15.5 percent of the students said they frequently could not afford meals or groceries.

In 2009, 47,204 college students applying for financial aid checked a box that identified themselves as homeless, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. That statistic was not collected in previous years.

Because of the phrasing of the survey, Duffield said, she believes the number is larger.

In Minnesota, where the survey also was conducted, 154 college students said they were living in a homeless shelter and 228 said they were at risk of being homeless, said Cheryl Maplethorpe, director of the financial aid division for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

She also believes the number is larger, because the computerized questionnaire did not ask all students whether they had a home.

Maplethorpe said that in September, she assembled a group to discuss how to help homeless students or students who are in foster care. She said they plan to conduct a survey to find out what services are available for such students.

LaSondra Edwards, 19, is living in a downtown shelter with her son, Cortez, who is one year old. She took her finals at MCTC this month and hopes it will help her get a job as a nursing assistant. She has free child care, but only for 20 hours a week, which she says limits her ability to study.

"It is getting depressing," she said. "There are times when I just want to give up. I do not have much help going on. I have no reliable transportation, income, food."

Book bag, clothes bag

Many homeless students have trouble staying in school, several experts say.

"They are not well rested, and they are stressed out," said Mary Ann Prado, who works with homeless college students as director of resources and referrals at MCTC. It's typical for them not to have a place to take a shower and not to have enough clothes, she said.

Many don't have a quiet place to study, and many are hungry.

"If you haven't eaten, how are you going to study when your stomach is growling?" Prado asked. "I have to help find students notebooks and book bags because they cannot afford anything. It is difficult."

Angel Martin, 20, is "couch hopping" and currently staying with a friend in south Minneapolis for a couple of weeks. The MCTC sophomore gets a $203 monthly general assistance check and about $200 a month in food stamps.

"I have a psychiatrist and take medication so I won't walk around angry and be frustrated all the time and take my anger out on others," she said. "I do see myself as being a successful African-American woman so that I can teach the younger girls under me that they can be better, that they don't have to have a baby, or go prostituting themselves or sell drugs. They can have an honest living."

Sparks lost his full-time job with a computer company and enrolled at MCTC to gain more advanced skills. "I had an apartment but could not pay the rent," he said. He's lived at the Salvation Army shelter for two years and is getting occasional work through a temp agency, he said.

He is not allowed to store his belongings at the Salvation Army, so every day he hides his bag of clothes and books in some bushes on his way to class. He used to take the bags to classes but found it too embarrassing.

"Sometimes I'm too tired to focus," Sparks said. The mats on the floor where he sleeps are too close to each other, and he said some of the men who come in to sleep next to him are drunk and have not taken showers.

"It's disgusting," he said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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