Emily Hatton, staff writer
Many students spend Thanksgiving and winter breaks stuffing themselves on holiday meals, sleeping in, and catching up with family and high school friends. But not all view the upcoming academic breaks with enthusiasm. Shuttered dorms mean one vulnerable population has nowhere to go.
About 58,000 students in America self-identify as homeless on their FAFSA.
Experts agree it's best to reach out to these students early in the school year—or before classes even begin. But although Thanksgiving is just one week away, it's not too late to get started.
Repurpose resources already in place
"One thing [schools] can do is to look to what they already have," says Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).
She notes the organization's "A Home for the Holidays" campaign offers actionable tactics: For example, if certain residence halls remain open for international students or athletes, let those in need stay there over the breaks, or contact community partners that offer transitional living programs and shelters. Schools also can use Student Support Services funds to pay for temporary housing under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.
"We are not saying colleges need to provide the housing, but they need to have at least a plan to make sure housing isn't a barrier during academic breaks for homeless and foster youth," Duffield says. "We have definitely had students accept offers of help that are not really well intended, and then they end up in an unsafe situation."
Proactive marketing is key
One of the most difficult parts of helping these students is actually finding them, says Marcy Stidum, director for the Center for Advocacy, Response and Education (CARE) at Kennesaw State University (KSU).
"It is a hidden population and some are very resistant to help," Stidum says. "Saying you're homeless is also accepting all the stereotypes and all the labels and all the things that come with it."
That's why it is so important to make sure students are at least aware of the services available, so that if they need help they can reach out for it. Stidum's center connects with students through classroom presentations, student group partnerships, and homeless and foster youth liaisons.
"Most students don't tell anybody because of the stigma," Duffield says. "Outreach needs to be proactive and done sensitively."
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She suggests checking with the financial aid office to identify students in potential need. Instructors working closely with students may notice warning signs as well, such as increased stress as the breaks approach. Putting posters and signs around campus with information about options for housing over the break can help too, she says.
"Look around, chances are there is going to be need on campus," says Lisa Jackson, program coordinator for Unconquered Scholars at Florida State University (FSU).
And that need isn't limited to just housing.
Jackson's group serves students who are homeless, formerly homeless, foster youth, or in relative care, and it falls under an admissions and support program for first-generation, low-income students, the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement.
"Year after year, when we ask students what they are looking for out of this program specifically, in various ways they express they're looking for that family because so many of our youth don't have a forever family," Jackson says.
In addition to college preparation programs and financial aid guidance, Unconquered Scholars also offers a peer-to-peer mentor program, game nights, and an out-of-town trip during FSU Parents' Weekend to foster a sense of community.
Creating a program from scratch
After getting through the holidays, if school officials are interested in creating a more comprehensive program like those at KSU and FSU, the first step is simply talking about it, says Cyekeia Lee, NAEHCY's director of higher education initiatives.
"Your provosts, your vice president, your president need to see the reality of the number of homeless students in that state and then on that campus," Lee says.
Be sure to include faculty and students in the discussions too, Stidum says, to balance out perspectives and energy.
And when it comes time to start designing the program, first take stock of what your school already offers and try to centralize as much as possible, she says. Multiple departments may be involved, but the students should only need to go to one spot.
"That's the biggest thing: avoid duplication because it's only going to be frustrating to the student," she says.
The money to support the program can come from multiple sources. Unconquered Scholars falls under FSU's undergraduate studies and student affairs budget, while KSU's CARE runs entirely off of fundraising and grants.
"It's pretty easy, but honestly it starts with a conversation," Lee says.
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