Expert estimates 15-20 UCF students are homeless
An estimated 58,000 students nationwide were homeless in 2013, according to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, as reported by USA Today.
The number may lack hard data, the article states, but sheds light on the fact that the problem exists.
Experts at UCF agree that an essential root to addressing homelessness among college students is missing: There is extremely limited data on homeless college students in the U.S.
"It's [student homelessness] certainly not been part of the national conversation about homelessness … There's growing recognition that it's a problem," said James Wright, a UCF sociology professor.
A former board member of the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, Wright has extensively written, researched and taught on homelessness. His 2011 book, Poor and Homeless in the Sunshine State: Down and Out in Theme Park Nation, delves into homelessness in the Orlando area.
Wright estimates that about 15 to 20 UCF students are homeless. Some may temporarily lack housing as they wait on an expected student loan, or may be waiting to hear back from a prospective job. Meanwhile, they may be sleeping at friends' houses, not even realizing they are homeless, he said.
Some may live in dorms on campus, but once the semester finishes they have nowhere to return or call "home."
Stigmatization and the development of an "identity protection barrier mechanism" may prevent students from seeking help, Wright said. Additionally, while food distribution programs and temporary housing are available in Central Florida, many shelters only provide emergency services.
Graduate public administration and nonprofit management student Lauren Cantrell is working to raise awareness of the issue on campus. As an AmeriCorps VISTA homeless-student resource liaison, Cantrell is only paid at poverty level: $397 bi-weekly salary attests to her dedication.
Cantrell only has one year to make her time in the position count by laying down the groundwork for future liaisons.
With Wright's advising, Cantrell crafted a campus-wide survey to reconcile for the lack of data on homeless students. Student volunteers will distribute the surveys on iPads in high-traffic areas on campus.
"There is an issue at UCF, we just don't know [exactly] how big it is, but we do know it exists because at least 13 students have applied for the tuition waiver," Cantrell said.
Cantrell plans to work with the UCF Housing and Residence Life department to create temporary housing possibilities. Additionally, she is collaborating with Volunteer UCF to host the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week on campus from Nov. 16 to Nov. 22. This will be the first time homelessness is integrated into UCF's hunger week.
Faculty at other campuses have also realized the problem.
Seminole State College admissions director and psychology professor Angela Adame-Smith first began to notice the presence of homelessness on campus after witnessing students come in to the admissions office with no address to provide on documents.
Semester after semester, Adame-Smith kept witnessing the same problem, which compelled her to dig deeper into the students' struggles and write her dissertation, "The lived experience of homeless college students."
Along with the typical struggles shared by most homeless individuals, homeless students have the responsibility of managing a full-time job with classes and may fall behind their classmates, causing lack of focus due to a diminished quality of life.
"When we look at the homeless individual … a lot of them come from unstable homes, moving from place to place," Adame-Smith said. "That can definitely lead to depression [and] constant worry: 'Where will I be next week? Where will I be next month?'"