The Hope Lab at the University of Wisconsin, working with the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Study, the Association of Community College Trustees, and Single Stop, a national organization focused on helping economically vulnerable students and their families, posted at the end of 2015 a powerful report – Hungry To Learn – on food and housing insecurity among community college students. The numbers should make everyone take notice: in the prior year, more than 50% of community college students had experienced housing insecurity, with 13% homeless, and nearly half had experienced food insecurity. The authors are clear about the scope and consequences: “the data suggest that students feel quite compromised by inadequate living situations, and often struggle to focus on school.” The report highlights the challenges we face in our aspirations to get more students to and through community college degrees and certificates.
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond’s gripping and heart-rending book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, was published shortly after. Desmond spent years doing close field research in Milwaukee, which he combines with insight into policies, practices in theory. He explains how eviction – the forced removal of someone from their home – is now common, everyday practice in America. Evictions are how the system runs. He details the devastation, the despair, and cycle that keeps people in extreme poverty. It is a ground-level look at inequality and inequity.
The book examines interlocking housing issues from multiple perspectives. He captures the voices of tenants, friends, family, landlords, employers and others. Living in a trailer park for several years and building trust with his subjects – and friends – enabled a level of detail and compassion that is uncommon in a well-researched social science study. One of the most telling consequences is that we can understand the choices and actions of those living within this “system.” Participants are incentivized, or compelled, in ways that maintain high levels of poverty. These are good people – fighting to retain humor, dignity, and a sense of meaning in very dire straits. However, when rent is 70% of income, there are few “good” options available. The availability of public housing is limited and the wait time is measured in years.
Gender and race are critical factors. The cost of evictions and housing instability are borne mostly by women and, by extension, their families. Segregation in cities compounds the impact. Children of color raised in this cycle face tremendous obstacles. They face tremendous obstacles if they are to lead a different sort of life.
Desmond’s work has the potential to reshape broader national discussions about housing policy. Starting with the big picture, he makes it clear that providing job training, education and healthcare will be of limited impact if a family is constantly moving. Denied a stable or consistent school, children will find it harder to learn, to socialize, to grow up and to mature in a healthy manner. A stable family foundation, in affordable housing, is the foundation for any kind of sustainable success and potential rise out of poverty.
Support comes in many forms. Organizations, cities and states are working to provide help. Larger initiatives will be necessary, though, if we are to make significant progress. When it comes to higher education, colleges have much work to do. Many housing insecure students will not identify themselves or ask for help. Resources are available – but they are not easy to navigate. A non-profit based in California, Homeless To Higher Ed, was recently established to raise awareness and help students. It is led by Jessica Sutherland, a student who experience housing insecurity and homelessness first hand. I am confident that other organizations are on the way. More than a few colleges are focusing resources on the issue.
Read together, these two publications go far in explaining poverty’s devastating and tenacious impact. For those of us who work in higher education – particularly the community college world that serves so many students of limited means – the works underscore the daunting obstacles that many in our communities and our students face.We have to mindful and to remember something very basic in fulfilling our mission – students need reliable food and shelter if they are going to succeed.