Opinion: Poverty. Homelessness. College students.

by MonYonna Braxton

April 29, 2022

One study found that nearly three out of five students experienced basic needs insecurity during the pandemic, meaning that they did not have stable access to housing or food.

I was one of them. On September 18, 2020, I was physically assaulted and left with nowhere to go. I felt alone, abandoned, and rejected.

School became tertiary; my focus was getting through the days. I could not comfortably afford food or health care. I often wondered how this could happen to “someone like me,” a good student who is hardworking and dedicated to her studies.

When I sought help from people on campus, I was initially met with responses like, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing that I can do” or “Speak with your guardian.” I distinctly remember feeling like a burden to administrators.

It was not until I was introduced to a woman in Mobile, AL that I received the assistance that I desperately needed. This stranger, now godmother, knew how to navigate higher education in ways that I did not. My instructions were to communicate my concerns with my program directors. Once in contact with the right people, I received the help that I needed. While my situation may seem uncommon, it is far from it.

In a landscape basic needs survey of nearly 200,000 students, 48% reported that they experienced housing insecurity, and 14% experienced homelessness in the fall of 2020. Black students were 16% more likely to experience basic needs insecurity than their white counterparts.

Knowing how common this issue is nationally,  it begs the question: how prevalent is housing and food insecurity on our campus? How many students skip meals or cannot pay their rent?

Though my situation has improved, the problem of homelessness on our college campus still exists. Regrettably, there is no specific department or person at USM whose job is to support students’ basic needs.

At USM, resources like Eagle’s Nest Food Pantry, Swipe Away Hunger, and Seymour's Career Closet exist to help students secure food and professional clothing. These initiatives are a great start but I think we can do more to meet students where they are - with dignity and care.

I believe that our university should conduct a landscape basic needs study to find out how common this issue is. This would give campus leaders a better understanding of how and where to address homelessness on college campuses. Once data is collected, we will be able to provide ample support to vulnerable students.  Common recommendations to fight basic needs insecurity include providing emergency financial aid, helping students apply for public benefits like SNAP, and stigmatizing the use of emergency resources.

So, the question that I leave administrators and those in a position of power is simply this -  how will you assist students whose struggles have long gone unnoticed?

MonYonna Braxton is a master’s student at the University of Southern Mississippi where she studies Higher Education Administration. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern Mississippi as well. She is also a Woodward Hines Education Foundation Student Advocacy Corps Intern.

Posted by Ainsley Ash at 11:25 AM