Student Homelessness Draft
Last year, starting in January until late April, Chris Ilo lived at The New School’s University Center. During the day, she would attend her classes in various buildings around Manhattan’s Union Square, and at night, she would head to the University Center fifth floor to sleep on chairs or tables, nourishing herself from found food or left-overs at the dining hall and showering in the gym facilities’ showers. For the whole semester, Ilo would go through her classes as a college freshman, trying to stay focused, and then come home to the large futuristic building on the corner of 5th Ave. and 14th Street that put cost the school $353 million to build. The center itself was built as a hub for students from every New School college, including Eugene Lang, Mannes, Milan and Parsons, the top design school of the country and ranked second internationally.
But Ilo wasn’t alone. For the past two years since it was built, the UC has housed classrooms full of top of the line design equipment, 3d printers, a dining hall with organic food and audiovisual artists libraries. Last year, two conference rooms on the fifth floor also served as an unofficial house for a community of about fifteen homeless students at The New School. Another one of these students was Mike, who found himself in a similar situation without a place to live at the beginning of the semester. In describing what that experience was like, he talked about immense desperation. “Sometimes I would feel like I was getting used to living in that situation but how could anyone get used to sleeping on chairs in classrooms, on the floors of different apartments or on those few occasions I slept in the street. Its unsettling and you feel as if no one cares and everyday You beg to yourself that someone would help you but no one does because that’s how the world works.”
Ilo’s path to homelessness was unique but not rare, and certainly not isolated. Bllessah was an eager high schooler wanting to study fashion when he first found out about Parsons. Much like Mike, who claimed “Parsons is the Harvard of Design” — it was his dream school. Bllessah tells me, “I told my mom, ‘I’m going to New York.’ I didn’t know how to pay for it, I didn’t know where to live, but I was just going to New York.” Initially his tuition, not including room, board, cost of transportation or textbooks, was $42,000 but he worked with the school’s financial aid office to bring down the portion he pays to $2,000, because of the fact that both of his parents are disabled. Ever since then, however, the school has been increasing what he pays by $1,000 or $2,000 each semester.
Although Bllessah’s low-income status qualified him for a Pell grant, a government program that ideally makes it so that the student does not have to take out loans, anything over $2,000 would require him to find alternate sources of income. While many students pay $2,000 a month in rent, this much/ semester would make the difference on whether or not Bllessah can finish his degree. The situation with the accommodating financial aid officer also is indicative of the disorganization and inconsistency of the school. As soon as the officer left after Bllessah’s first year, the financial aid officer took away the grants that he was awarded and gave him no other option other than to apply for loans, something that his credit does not allow him to do.
Another student who went through a similar experience last year is Taylor, a Junior at Lang studying Arts and Contexts. In 2015, at the end of the Spring semester, she was faced with a $5,000 balance from her dorm room she could not pay, and then when faced with the housing insecurity and a hold on her account, she decided to take a semester off to save money instead of transferring to a cheaper school. This highlights not only the issue with the cost of the dorms (at over $17,000/ year, positioned as the most expensive dorm room in the country), but also the realities that come with not being able to pay such a relatively small balance.
Typically, the costs of college tuition is split into three parts: government (pell) grant, school or institutional grants, private and public loans and the student’s or parent’s own pocket. Since schools like The New School with smaller endowments typically have less to offer in terms of grants and scholarships, people look to loans to cover the cost they can’t afford — which in itself is a luxury. Kiera, a Parsons’ photography student currently on leave in order to save money to pay her balance on her New School account, described the idea of what she calls loan privilege: “They didn’t give me other options besides getting a loan. I can’t afford to do that and my credit score won’t even allow me to do that. My mom doesn’t have a good line of credit, or my dad or my sister.”
The New School is trying to ameliorate housing and food insecurity through a variety of programs including the food pantry, Student Health Services with free mental health services and the emergency fund of the Center for Student Support and Crisis Management. Many students try to tap into this fund each year but there are usually difficulties in receiving this money, which begs the question on what they consider an “emergency” and who is eligible to receive the funds. According to Naim Rasul, who works at the office, and emergency can be anything from temporary loss of employment, fire, death, accidents, homelessness, or loss of child-care, yet, “there are stipulations on how a student can receive those funds.” In order to receive money in the form of a metro card or credit from a grocery store, “a student has to be enrolled, they have to be in good academic standing, they must be experiencing an acute emergency and if not, alone.” Systems that make it difficult to access this money are frustrating for students, however it negotiations for small amounts of financial support with no ends met comes second to the urgency of holds that can determine one’s educational future. When asked if he ever tapped into emergency funds money, Mike said, “Emergency funds don’t pay off loans.”
At The New School as well as many other schools, an inability to pay the balance will put a hold on the account that prohibits the student from registering for classes. Blessah tells me that every semester since he has been at The New School he has had a hold on his account. “I always start classes two weeks late because of this, even though I’m on campus. I always get the last of the classes and I haven’t been able to register for some of my classes I need to graduate, because they get full early.” This ongoing treatment on an institutional level is indicative of a greater racist society in which people from historically marginalized backgrounds are expected to produce the same work at the same time with fewer resources.
The hypocrasy of a progressive university teaching post-colonial theory while leaving many Black students homeless is something Taylor thinks about extensively. For her, it is daunting and exhausting to come to school to discuss issues of theory when she’s not rested, stressed and hungry. Like many students, she comes to school to read heavy theory about race dynamics and intergenerational trauma while also worrying about her next meal and where she’s going to sleep that night. She juxtaposes the liberal art school being so invested in social justice and theory while leaving the students of color to sleep on the street saying, “I learn all this stuff about myself and Blackness and the system and it’s like, how do I learn to balance doing work and also not thinking about it all the time. And I’m still struggling with it.”
Something Mike struggled with during the semester that he lived in the University Center was finding a stable source of food. “How can I focus on my midterm when I have to focus on finding a place to sleep every night and what I will eat, if I have enough money to eat?” The New School has tried to take action by providing free food in one cafe every 4–10 nights, but this is by no means sustainable and although the food pantry opens its doors specifically for students who experience food insecurity, people like Blessah still needed to go on food stamps and still struggles to pay to for food other than what is provided at the pantry. Bllessah says he is constantly worrying about where he has to eat. He remembers being given a Trader Joe’s gift card by the emergency fund and calculating how to make $20 last two weeks.
There are also much more deep-seeded implications of house and food insecurity when it comes to mental health. Mike remembers a time when he first became homeless,, feeling incredibly depressed. He says, “Sometimes I would feel like I was getting used to living in that situation but how could anyone get used to sleeping on chairs in classrooms, on the floors of different apartments or on those few occasions I slept in the street.A state of emotional well-being and a good night’s sleep are a few qualities of life that Mike, Chris, Bllessah, and Taylor were all ready to sacrifice in order to obtain a Bachelor’s degree at The New School.
Brialle Ringer, a researcher at Eastern Michigan University who studied homeless college students on her campus, points to a phenomenon in which some students believe a higher education is necessary to achieve financial success, but are impelled to take out thousands of dollars in student loans in order to do so. She describes the situation as a “catch-22,”: “we’re saying that you need to have this degree, but you have to go into tons of debt to get this degree, and then we’re not even guaranteeing that you will be able to pay this debt off.”
Partly what attracts students from low-income backgrounds to the New School is its prestige as a top design college. For students, especially students of color who are historically excluded from these spaces, the benefits of enrolling at his dream college and entering a community that may link him up with design professionals outweighed the hardship of homelessness. Ringer says that this choice to compromise housing is one that low-income students are coerced into making. “Some students think there’s this narrative that students are choosing to be homeless, instead of taking out more loan debt,” said Ringer. “But really it’s a financial choice that students are having to make and that’s not really on the students, that’s on the system that has allowed for such a situation for costs of education to go so high that people are having to go hungry and homeless to get a degree.”
“It’s too much at this point to throw it away. I’ve been through too much,” Taylor admits to me. “And anyway, if I can get through this, I can get through anything.”