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On Campus Podcast – Student Housing, Resource, and Partnerships

Season 1 – Episode 43 – Student Housing, Resource, and Partnerships

Homelessness, food insecurity, and resource provision for students are growing concerns. Unaccompanied homeless youth face enrollment barriers despite their desire to attend college, as stated by the National Center for Homeless Education. In 2020, a Hope Center report revealed that 14% of college students experienced homelessness, with some resorting to temporary stays with friends or family. Enhancing financial aid tools, accessibility, and resource expansion can aid students of all ages in accessing higher education.


Episode Transcript

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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis and this is On Campus. Today, student housing and college campuses, access to resources beyond the campus and university partnerships to support students. I spoke with Jillian Sitjar, Director of Higher Education Partnerships at Schoolhouse Connection. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are solely those of the guest and do not represent the views of their employer. Hi, Jillian. Thank you for joining me today.

Jillian Sitjar: Thanks for having me.

Darren Gaddis: Jillian, could you briefly define what homelessness is to help us ground our conversation today?

Jillian Sitjar: Yes. Of course. So, there are actually many different definitions of homelessness. But within education, we use the federal education definition of homelessness, or also known as the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness, meaning lacking a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence. This definition is broader than, for example, the hard definition of homelessness and it can look like a lot of different things. So, it can include couch-surfing, staying with others, perhaps staying in a hotel or a motel or in a car, or even being in a residence hall, but would otherwise have no place to be. So, there’s this misconception that homelessness can look like one specific thing and that living on the streets or on a bench, but that is completely false and not the reality for many of our students.

Darren Gaddis: With this understanding, Jillian, what are some factors which have contributed to a rise in student homelessness across the United States, especially in college and university student populations?

Jillian Sitjar: Yeah. Definitely. So, the pandemic really shined a light on college homelessness when several colleges closed and many students had no place to go. But the truth is that there were always college students experiencing homelessness on campuses. Colleges just weren’t seeing them. So, research from Chapin Hall from the University of Chicago found that in any given year, an estimated 3.5 million young adults, so age of 18 to 25, experience some form of homelessness. So, there’s this pipeline from the K through 12 system that feeds into college. Many students experiencing homelessness with their families, and especially as a result of the pandemic with rising costs of housing, tuition and just overall the economy. But there are also some other factors that can lead to college homelessness as well.

So, college might be the first time that students are away from home and they’re figuring out who they are and their identities. So, LGBTQ+ youth have a higher chance of experiencing homelessness and there might be some instances where these young adults are asked to move out of their homes or leave their families based on their identity. I also want to note the prevalence of pregnant and parenting students in college. The Hope Center, which is the nation’s leading survey on basic needs, released a report in 2021. They surveyed almost 200,000 students from over 200 colleges and universities during the fall of 2020 and found that about 14% of these students experienced homelessness in the last year. So, we actually imagined this number to be a lot higher because so many of our students maybe decided not to return back to college in the fall when the pandemic first happened in the spring.

Darren Gaddis: With this information, how can education, and more specifically higher education, assist in moving students out of homelessness?

Jillian Sitjar: Despite skepticism about the value of higher education, education beyond high school remains the surest way for students experiencing homelessness so they can afford to have a good paying job and have financial independence and stability. Our motto at Schoolhouse Connection is overcoming homelessness through education. We know that that is true, that higher education is a protective factor against youth homelessness because there was, again, another study from Chapin Hall that showed that four year college enrollment is four times higher for young adults that experiences homelessness in the prior month. So, within the K through 12 system, there is just a lot more structured support and policies set in place, and we don’t have that system set up in the higher education world. We are starting to build similar support, new homeless higher education liaisons through some state policies, but we’re just not there yet.

Darren Gaddis: So, when a student is experiencing homelessness, what are some of the other issues that a student can also be facing?

Jillian Sitjar: Yeah. So, definitely in the last five to 10 years or so, we’ve been seeing this general basic need movement happening. But we specifically really want to call out students experiencing homelessness because of perhaps their experience with trauma and abuse. So, holistic case management and support is definitely necessary in addition to addressing the basic needs of food and housing. Something that we’ve noticed within our students is perhaps the lack of familial support. So, I mentioned before that sometimes our students experiencing homelessness are also experiencing homelessness within their families. But a lot of times, these students might be completely on their own. They might be an unaccompanied homeless youth. So, again, meeting the same definition of homelessness, but without their parent or their guardian. Mental health is a huge issue that we are seeing not just within our own students, but I think in higher education in general, and being able to access mental health support on campus is definitely a barrier that we are seeing.

Another topic is the transition from high school. So, as I mentioned in the K through 12 system, there are McKinney-Vento liaisons, so individuals set in place to support this population. But again, transitioning from high school to college, maybe that college might not have a homeless higher education liaison or a similar person set in place. So, that transition can be really difficult. We had one scholar say that graduating from high school was the most devastating day in her life at that time because she was losing all the support that she had over the last four years that she developed while she was at high school, and then once she got to college, she felt like she didn’t have anyone. So, being able to provide and ease that transition from high school to college can be quite difficult for some of our students.

Another piece is financial aid. So, the FAFSA is already confusing and complicated form to fill out. I know big changes are happening for the FAFSA, which should hopefully simplify the process. But for our unaccompanied homeless youth or youth who are unaccompanied and self-supporting and at risk of homelessness, they need to provide a specific documentation to prove their homelessness. That can be really taxing and can be really difficult for some of our students and can potentially cause a delay in aid, which we know a lot of our students rely on that aid to pay for supplies, textbooks, housing, other pieces. Then lastly, childcare. As I mentioned before, pregnant and parenting students are prevalent on college campuses. So, we want to make sure that we are thinking through some of those pieces to provide support for both parenting students as well as the child.

Darren Gaddis: Jillian, what is the response that you’ve seen from institutions across the nation to respond to students who might be facing homelessness or food insecurity on their campus and what are some additional resources that might be available to students?

Jillian Sitjar: So, institutions have responded by creating basic needs assessments. So, whether that is conducting a survey through the Hope Center or creating their own survey on college campuses to reach out to students to ask them, what do you need to better succeed in college and how can we support you? Another great best practice is homeless higher education liaisons and the support programs that are designated to identify and provide resources for this specific population. So, these homeless higher education liaisons, they mimic the K through 12 McKinney-Vento liaisons that I have previously mentioned and they are a great way to help ease that transition from high school, identify students, and really connect them to resources both on and off-campus. Homeless higher education liaisons are sometimes designated through state policy. So, there are about nine states that have a homeless higher education liaison state policy, which is great. But then other states might have more informal networks like Colorado and Georgia. They have general best practices amongst the state to develop a homeless higher education liaison or a designated point of contact.

Another really great best practice that we are seeing is the value of peer mentorship. So, while it is great to have a staff member, a dedicated higher education professional to support students experiencing homelessness, sometimes being connected with other peers, other students that have similar experiences can go a long way. So, we are seeing a lot of great partnerships like at Kennesaw State University. They have a great peer mentorship program. At Middle Tennessee State University, they also have an amazing peer mentorship program where incoming students can get paired with an upperclassman and they have that similar shared experiences of perhaps experiencing homelessness or the background in foster care.

Darren Gaddis: With echoing economic concerns across the United States, what should institutions of higher education be doing today to stabilize housing for their students on their campus?

Jillian Sitjar: So, definitely want to reiterate that priority housing, making sure that if our students experiencing homelessness are coming in, we can get them onto on campus housing. We know that that can be really competitive. I used to work in housing myself, and so we want to make sure that we are creating that clear pathway for our students to get housing since they are most in need. Another piece of advice is trying to operate year-round housing if possible, or at least keeping one residence hall or one space open year round so that our students can be placed in that specific resident hall throughout the year and not have to worry about finding housing over winter break or spring break or perhaps the summer. Some institutions are creating housing plans to address those break gaps. So, some institutions might rent out an Airbnb or perhaps provide hotel rooms for students who have no place to go over the winter break.

At Georgetown University, they would have a few hotel rooms available for students. Other institutions might utilize host homes. So, partnering with local alumni or friends of the institution. Perhaps these individuals have spaces in their homes that they want to rent out to college students, perhaps at a free or at a low cost. There are some apps that institutions might be partnering with, such as Nesterly or HomeShare, where the apps are able to partner with houses and homes that have free spaces. Other institutions might have emergency housing options. So, we recognize that students’ housing situations may vary and may change throughout the year. So, maybe a student just needs a few weeks or a few days to find more stable housing. So, Sacramento State has a really robust emergency housing program where students can stay in the resident halls for, I believe, 30 days while they’re working with a case manager to find more stable housing.

During that time, they’re also provided with a meal plan, since we know that a lot of times, if our students are struggling with housing, they might be struggling with finding food as well. Another piece is also housing or shelters, rather. So, there might be specific shelters that are geared towards college students. In California. There is a rapid rehousing college support program that we are seeing being replicated throughout the state that has been working really well. In addition to these rapid rehousing models, they’re also utilizing and paying college students to be peer navigators to help spread that word and help identify students, again, going back to that peer mentorship piece. Another piece is housing grants. So, there was a lot of funding coming in with the HEERF funding, the relief funding from the pandemic, and a lot of institutions as they were giving out this relief money to various students, they were asking, where is this money going? What are you using this money for? More and more often, these students were saying they were going toward housing related costs.

As a result, some institutions are making specific grants that are dedicated for housing. So, whether that’s helping with paying a deposit or paying first month or last month’s rent, or perhaps there was an emergency that came up, a car broke down or a medical bill happened, and now a student is struggling with paying for their rent, these students can apply for the specific housing grant and get that money so they can stay within their house and pay for those pieces. Then lastly, I just want to share, sometimes coming up with really creative solutions to partner with places and spaces that have beds can be really impactful and we’ve seen really great partnerships with institutions that are partnering perhaps in assisted living home because there are empty beds available.

So, these institutions will have students live in the assisted living home. Perhaps they’re paying a small fee. Another example is four-year institutions might have empty beds available on their residence halls, and so they can partner with local community colleges and have their students stay in the residence halls while still going to classes in the community college. But the goal is that perhaps after the student graduates from community college, they might want to transfer into that four year institution since they have that familiarity and have gotten to know the campus a little bit better. So, really creative solutions, but want to make sure that we’re making sure that that partnership is mutually beneficial between both parties.

Darren Gaddis: What else should we know about college and university students who might be experiencing homelessness?

Jillian Sitjar: I just want to reiterate that these students exist on all campuses. They just might be a little bit hard to identify. So, I really want to challenge our higher ed professionals to think through how we’re reaching out to these students and making sure that there are systems set in place to identify and recruit and support this population. Also, there are just many obstacles for students experiencing homelessness to navigate the whole college process, especially with filling out the FAFSA and applying for college, but our students are resilient. A study from the California Homeless Youth Project found that over 90% of youth interviewed specified a career goal that required education beyond a high school degree, yet only 16% believed that they would actually be able to attend or graduate college within the five years. So, we need to do better as higher education professionals. We need to provide that support because our students want to pursue post-secondary education.

They just need that extra additional push, that extra additional help. Lastly, I really want to highlight our Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program at Schoolhouse Connection. Our Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program is an amazing program that really values and emphasizes that peer mentorship piece. These students come from all across the country, but they’re able to come together and share in this experience and learn from one another, and it’s truly a family. It’s truly a community. So, I really want to challenge and, again, hope that colleges, universities can provide that support network, that support place, that program for these students because they’re on your campus, they want to be there, at times they feel like they don’t belong. But if we can connect them to others that might have similar experiences, that can really help bring their college career into this beautiful fruition.

Darren Gaddis: Jillian, thank you for joining me today.

Jillian Sitjar: Of course. Thank you for having me.

Darren Gaddis: Be sure to follow, like, and subscribe to On Campus with CITI Program to stay in the know. If you enjoyed this podcast, you may also be interested in other podcasts from CITI Program, including On Research and On Tech Ethics. You can listen to all of our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other streaming services. I also invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses, subscriptions, and webinars that may be of interest to you, like CITI Program’s Clery Act course.


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Meet the Guests

Jillian Sitjar, MEd – SchoolHouse Connection

As Director of Higher Education Partnerships at SchoolHouse Connection, Jillian Sitjar helps students experiencing homelessness successfully transition to and through higher education by elevating best practices and removing barriers.


Meet the Host

Team Member darren gaddis

Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program

He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.