In College With No Place To Stay

Nick Balsirow attends The New School in New York City. He is also homeless. Photo by Morgan Young.

I first noticed Nick Balsirow in Advanced Poetry. He started coming to class with a large backpack, much larger than the small totes other students carried at The New School, a small liberal arts college in New York City. At first I thought his big hikers bag fit in with his somewhat disheveled style — of a piece with his long, straight black hair, which he’d try to untangle during class, and his wide array of graphic T’s and colorful pants.

But in truth, the bag wasn’t a style choice. It carried everything he owned. Balsirow is one of thousands of homeless students at America’s leading universities. They’re faced with an impossible choice between tuition or rent, between giving up on shelter or their ambitions. And like so many others, Nick ended up bouncing from place to place, trying to find safe havens while keeping up his grades.

“I stayed at so many places- at first it wasn’t that bad. At first, I knew enough people to have a fresh cycle of couches without having everyone hate me,” Balsirow said.

“I never stayed for more than three days at a time — because if Christ can rise during that time, I shouldn’t be staying on that couch any more. Then I would go to another one and another one.”

But as time wore on, sleeping on a different couch every few days started to get to him. He found himself in a heightened state of stress and fear, something he called “survival mode.” It had destructive effects on his mental health, his relationships, and his academic performance.

Balsirow lugged his unwieldy backpack around from class to class, sometimes leaving it in a corner of the courtyard, The New School’s equivalent of a quad. Every day, he texted acquaintances and friends to see if they could house him on their couch or floor. On the unlucky nights when nobody could take him in, he’d head to the $350 million University Center and sleep on the fifth floor couches.

According to interviews with Balsirow and two other homeless students at The New School, sleeping at the University Center is somewhat common, with five to 10 students crashing there most nights during the school year.

David Howe, the area coordinator for the Kerrey Hall dorms located in the University Center described walking through the building in the evening and noticing students, he suspected slept in classrooms.

“I would see people in rooms and I’d be like- they probably live here,” he said.

Until recently, The New School has had frustratingly few options for these students, often referring them to homeless shelters or recommending they take out loans for housing. The situation is the same at private colleges across America.

“Students at private institutions face homelessness too,” Chase Sackett who works for the U.S Dept. of Housing said. According to him, the difference between homeless college students at private and public colleges is that students at private schools end up owing more money when and if they graduate.

Howe is part of a newly formed group of administrators, students and professors at The New School called The President’s Task Force on Food and Housing Insecurities. The group has recently opened a food pantry on campus to feed students who can’t afford food and Howe says they will focus on housing next.

The New School is hardly alone among colleges dealing with the homelessness. At least 58,000 college students in the United States self-identify as homeless, according to 2013–2014 Department of Education data, up from about 33,000 three years earlier. The real number is likely much higher since the Free Application for Federal Student Aid requires proof of homelessness to categorize students this way; a lot of students may not self-identify as homeless out of shame or because they don’t consider themselves homeless because they are successfully couch surfing.

Some homeless students were homeless when they started school; others become homeless after they get there.

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, the students who were homeless before college have something of a leg up, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Wisconsin Hope Lab, a research center that documents the housing and food struggles college students face. Like foster kids, who are more familiar with dealing with the daunting world of municipal homeless services.

“Some grew up with the struggle and know how to cope with it — others are new to it and cannot,” Goldrick-Rab said.

It’s often students like Balsirow, who grew up in a stable home but is in the first generation in his family to go to college, who are least well equipped to navigate either the complex financial aid system or the maze of city services designed to house and feed the poor, Goldrick-Rab said. Amid wealthy classmates, these students are often ashamed of their predicament.

Students like Balsirow find themselves in a strange new world without a map that other students seem to have. They underestimate the total attendance cost of higher education, which includes not only tuition but housing, food, transportation and additional fees. A study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that a third of colleges provide students with cost estimates that turn out to be at least $3,000 below their actual expenses.

Balsirow was born in North Philadelphia to parents of Mongolian descent and grew up in a brick row home that looked like every other home on his block, all connected and with very thin walls. “I’m sure my neighbors heard their fair share of arguments,” he said.

His was one of only three non-white families in his neighborhood. “There was another Asian family down the block that everyone thought we were related to,” he said. “But it was suffocatingly white.” Balsirow knew he was different — he says he was the only person in his neighborhood who aspired to be a writer and not a contractor.

Balsirow first heard about The New School during a high school English class for gifted students. After goofing around for the first part of the semester, his English teacher told him to submit an extra assignment to avoid failing the course. He submitted a poem his professor liked enough to boost his grade. He said his teacher knew he wouldn’t do well at a school with a rigid program and told him The New School’s seminar-style classes and alternative teaching methods might suit him. “It seemed different, and in most cases that’s good,” he said. “It definitely portrays itself as something out of the ordinary and when I was in high school I was trying to portray myself as something out of the ordinary.”

Nick in The New School courtyard where he would spend time with other homeless students. Photo by Morgan Young.

Attending The New School came at a substantial price. The average annual cost is $35,811, in line with a national average of $32,405 for private four-year colleges in 2015–2016, reported by the College Board, but considerably more than many state and community colleges.

“Twenty years ago the fact that you may have grown up in poverty would probably preclude you from seeing college as a possibility in your future,” Goldrick-Rab said at the #RealCollege Convening, “today we’ve structured K-12 education to encourage people to think about attending college as the natural next step. What we haven’t done is assure them that their living costs could be covered when they do get to school.”

Balsirow remembers visiting The New School on a Friday the 13th in 2011. Something about the excitement of the city and the aura of the campus attracted him.

While visiting the dorms, Balsirow watched as a cab driver ran into the car in front of him and had a seizure at the wheel. “Everyone is yelling and honking… I was just waiting outside the dorm saying ‘man this is awesome,’ it was just like ‘woah.” The city, with excitement on every corner, seemed a world away from his “boring” hometown. While researching The New School, Nick found a page of internships which he felt would further his dreams of writing and becoming a stand-up comedian — another reason to attend.

Though TNS’s hefty price tag was a consideration for Balsirow, he just couldn’t see himself attending Penn State or Rutgers, the two other schools he visited. His mother, a paralegal, never attended college and his father, a driver for Quest Diagnostics, a clinical laboratory, has an associate’s degree. They both worried about TNS’ price but agreed it was the best place for him.

“I knew it was going to be expensive but I figured it would be worth it somehow,” Balsirow said. “And even if it was very expensive I’d find it worth it somehow.”

Balsirow started attending The New School in the fall of 2012. According to documents reviewed by TK, that first year he received an Academic Achievement award from The New School, a scholarship from Eugene Lang college, Federal work study TKnoun and subsidized and unsubsidized loans totaling $30,600. He started receiving Pell Grants in his second year, but those diminished in his third year from $3,795 to $1,080. Pell Grants typically go to students whose families have an adjusted gross income of less than $30,000.

During his first year, Balsirow lived at the dorm on 20th Street and 8th Avenue, which he describes as “the retirement home of dorms,” because it’s so quiet and far from the life of the school. While his scholarships and loans were enough to pay tuition, he used a fund his grandparents had set up for him to pay for his housing, which in 2012 was between $13,000 to $18,000 per year, depending on the room. Those costs have risen about 23 percent, to $16,000 to $22,000, for the 2016–2017 school year. According to U.S News, out of data reported by 987 colleges, The New School charged the most for room and board in 2015–2016.

Howe said that even when he was an RA and lived in the dorms for free, he still had a hard time getting by in New York City. He says that most RA’s work two or three extra jobs.

“You just need money to make it work in NY,” he said. “If they come to the situation without a foundation, well even the best laid plans hit snags and some students don’t have a safety net.”

Like many young people living for the first time without parental supervision, Balsirow recalls not being too careful with how he spent his money, and he burned through the leftover money from his college fund pretty quickly. “Now I know how to pinch my pennies. But back then I was just a dumb kid,” he said. “It was like a hemorrhage, a hemorrhage the size of the big apple.”

Nick on the couch he sometimes slept on located in the University Center on 5th av. Photo by Morgan Young.

Last year, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research published a paper on homeless college students. It highlights rising tuition and housing costs at universities and a lack of housing opportunities, and points out the outsized affect housing insecurity can have on students.

Housing insecurity affects students’ grades, retention and graduation rates, the paper said. Homeless students continue to come to classes and to rack up student loan debt, while in general, schools, like The New School, offer limited help in finding these students affordable housing.

“There is so much education research out there but for something that appears to be such a large, significant reason that people don’t finish school, why aren’t more people researching it?” Sackett who wrote the HUD paper said.

While many students who find themselves in unstable housing situations drop out, Balsirow decided to stick it out. He went home for the summer after his freshman year intending to return to school even if he did not know how he’d be able to afford housing. He worked at a catering company, trying to save money for a place to live once he got back to the city. Upon moving back, he lived with cousins on the Upper East Side, paying them, he said, between $200 to $400 a month in rent. He moved out a couple of months later because he says they were using surveillance cameras to spy on him.

He then jumped around from place to place, staying at a friend’s dorm room in Stuyvesant Town for a couple of weeks and on other friends’ couches when he started to feel he was overstaying his welcome. He says he did not reach out to administrators for help then because at first he was having fun living like a vagabond. “It was exciting and extremely daunting because at that point it was winter and getting really cold,” he said.

But Balsirow says he eventually felt the pressure of waking up each day not knowing where he would sleep that night. He started lashing out at family and friends and spending less time on his schoolwork.

Balsirow couch-surfed all of the fall of his sophomore year. After winter break, he was able to find an apartment in Bed-Stuy with some other New School students but was kicked out at the end of the semester because of fights with his roommates. “It just makes you an asshole when there’s scarcity and you have to wheel and deal to survive,” he said, describing his living situation as being like working a night shift and coming home, too wired from work to sleep.

“Work mode really infringed on myself and on the people I lived with. They are no longer friends of mine,” he said.

Balsirow also acknowledges he stole food and went on drug binges, which contributed to him getting kicked out. His roommates allowed him to stay until the summer, something he says he would not have done had he been in their place.

After that summer, Balsirow’s mother was able to take out a Parent+ loan, thanks to her good credit, that he used for rent. He moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Bushwick with three other people, a couple who shared a room and a friend of his who also attended TNS. But then his roommates moved out unexpectedly and he was unable to find anyone to take over the lease.

Balsirow shopped around for a cheap room and ended up finding his next roommate at one of the comedy clubs where he practiced his stand-up. He moved in with a man who called himself “Satan” and lived on 133rd and St. Nicholas. Although I was unable to reach him for comment, a recent ad for a comedy club on St. Mark’s place features a stand-up comic named Satan.

Balsirow said Satan charged him $450 a month to sleep on a tempurpedic mattress in his living room. But even with an apartment to call home, Balsirow had a hard time focusing on school and didn’t do well that semester, leaving . His grades deteriorated and he eventually found out that his scholarship had been taken away, or he assumed it had when he received the bill from The New School. He says that he received no other communication letting him know that he no longer had a scholarship.

At first, his falling grades, which resulted in him losing his scholarship, were a result of goofing around, he said, but later it was because he had a hard time thinking about doing his homework when all he could think about was how hungry he was. Nick took out more loans but was unable to receive any extra money to cover housing. He decided to come back to school anyway, not knowing where he would live.

“This time, having more experience — I was like “I’m ready,” he said. “There were definitely experience points gained. I felt ready because I know NYC, I know cheap places to eat, I know more people. I know a lot of good people, know a lot of great people. So with all of those categories there is someone that will help.” His parents wished him luck and sent him off, and Nick started calling up friends to see if he could stay on their couches, never staying for more than three days at a time.

Nick says that he sometimes had to do things he didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing to stay at someone’s apartment, “Just needing places to stay and crashing at places you just feel obliged to do shit for them,” he said.

On the nights that he couldn’t find someone who would house him, Nick would sleep on the fifth floor of the University Center, The New School’s only 24-hour building.

Photo by Morgan Young.

During this time, Nick worked the door at an open-mic club Under St. Marks n the East village and was able to meet people there who would house him. “I had that entire community who were very supportive too of a struggling young artist.” His job didn’t pay much but it was enough to afford a metrocard and some food.

Nick did not reach out to The New School’s Student Health Services or the New School Financial Aid Services, saying now that he did not know these offices could help. He had few interactions with university administrators.

Students in housing or food insecure situations may find it hard to reach out to someone, or in some cases, not know who to reach out to, these students are also hard to find and identify.

Goldrick-Rab, researcher at the Wisconsin Hope Lab, stressed the importance of qualitative research in policy work because finding these students is difficult and having them agree to speak with researchers is even harder — especially if they are staying in buildings they shouldn’t be in, like Nick and other students at The New School who would spend their night at a university building.

“At my institution the students are scared of the university finding out about them,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Shirley Fan-Chan, who researches this issue at UMASS Boston and runs their UACCESS program, which helps students in insecure housing situations and collects data on the topic, said she has experienced similar issues with students at her university.

“Most students would not come out and identify themselves as homeless,” she said. “A lot of 18 to 26 year olds are ashamed and embarrassed or don’t know that they’re homeless because they’re crashing at friend’s house.”

The pressure finally caught up with Balsirow one day in the fall of 2015, when. He broke down during his acting fundamentals class.First, he sat down in a far corner, not taking part in the acting warm-ups.

Then, with no prompting, he burst into tears. His professor, Cecilia Rubino, spoke to him and he told her about his situation softly, within earshot of other students. “I didn’t care at that point,” he said. Rubino walked with him to the office of Leah Weich, an advisor at the school. Balsirow told her that he was homeless and she looked up information on emergency housing at The New School for him. When she realized that this, too, cost money, he says she asked if he had enough friends to stay with for the rest of the semester.

“It was, ‘what’s the clearest way to survive right now?’ and staying in school was basically up to me,” he said.

Balsirow also confided in another professor, Josh First, who he says put him in touch with someone else in the administration who might have been able to help. But Balsirow said he never reached out to them out of shame.

“At the time, you feel pretty low and asking for help is really hard,” he said.

It’s hard to say how many students at The New School are currently homeless or in unstable housing situations. I spoke with three of them, all of whom had become homeless after moving to New York and starting school.

Tracy Robins, one of the administrators in the President’s Task Force and a counselor at The New School’s Student Health Services said that when students approach counselors in her office saying that they are homeless she has few options. She gives them information on New York City homeless shelters and a reference to a financial aid officer to inquire about additional loans to use for housing.

Mo Grout, a sophomore in the Riggio Honors program at The New School has been homeless since he moved to New York to attend the University. During his first year, he squatted in an abandoned building in Red Hook. He now lives with friends in an apartment in Brooklyn, sleeping on their couch, which he describes as a more stable and less stressful situation.

He says The New School’s financial aid officers were not helpful or responsive when he told them about his living situation.

“I went to them at the beginning of this school year and they suggested going to shelters,” he said. “And that is dangerous and very bad advice to give anybody.”

If the student is temporarily without housing, Robins says her office can try to arrange for them to stay in the dorms for a couple of weeks or nights. David Howe, who is the area coordinator at The New School’s Kerrey Hall dorm says that he has had a couple of students stay there in emergency situations. Recently a student who needed a haven from an abusive relationship moved in, as well as two students whose apartment had burned down, Howe said.

Another option is The Caroll and Milton Petrie Emergency Fund, which can supply emergency cash, food or transportation if a student is at risk of eviction, has recently lost their job or lost a computer or book to theft. Students must be in good academic standing and not have a balance on their New School account in order to apply.

Robins started the food pantry with a group of New School administrators called The President’s Task Force on Food and Housing Insecurities. She says the group was formed after an increasing number of students came into her office saying they were unable to afford food or were homeless.

Howe, who joined the group in August, says that he had noticed students staying in the University Center overnight and had noticed some students staying as guests in the dorms for longer than they were allowed. Because of his own struggles with homelessness after graduating, he was uncomfortable with telling these students they couldn’t stay at the dorms, knowing they had nowhere to go.

The HUD paper highlights limitations on federal aid that may hinder students who are at risk of being homeless. After his parent’s divorce when he was eight, Nick said that his mother mostly handled the finances in their home, yet, he found himself handling most of his loans, reaching out to her solely to sign papers he needed her to sign. Nick says he only reached out to financial aid officers at The New School for help in paying his tuition bills but never told them that he was homeless.

Mo who did reach out to the school but was told he should reconsider attending. Mo is now considering transferring to Brooklyn College.

Mo is also a Pell Grant recipient but unlike Nick, who’s mother was able to take out a Parent+ loan to cover housing for a year, Mo’s parents were not eligible for one and says that a lot of private loans he looked into required guarantors. While growing up, his father worked as a janitor and his mother babysat children. They now own a small business in Seattle but he says they do not have the credit to sign on as guarantors for private loans. Both of his parents are from Eritrea and are devout muslim, who sometimes disapproved of his pursuit of the arts, causing an estrangement. Neither of them helped him navigate the administrative side of attending college.

Howe, the area coordinator at a New School dorm, is also from a working class family. He grew up in Florida and says he was desperate to get out. “The most different place in the world from Florida is New York City, and so I found Lang and applied here,” he said. Howe says that he noticed a difference between him and his classmates and that they seemed more prepared for college and the administrative maze that financial aid can be. “I struggled a lot with fitting into the culture of higher education, not being prepared in the way some of my peers were,” he said, pointing out that neither of his parents had attended college.

First-generation students, like Howe and Mo, often have trouble navigating the administrative framework of financial aid and often lack help from their parents who do not have experience with this either.

“The more non-traditional students you have — people who wouldn’t have gone to college before, and who lack a family safety net — going to college, then you’re more likely to have a higher proportion of students who are homeless or face housing insecurity,” said Chase Sackett who works at HUD.

The education gap first-generation or low-income students face in how to maneuver a complicated bureaucratic system is why Shirley Fan-Chan has made it a point to establish Single Points of Contact for students in these situations at U-Mass Boston. She said that though each university has a different infrastructure schools need to designate someone that students can speak to about being homeless.

“Private institutions are less aware of the issue unless a student comes forward,” she said. “A student has to come forward first and where can they identify themselves? Is it the financial aid office? What if they became homeless in the middle of the year? There needs to be a Single Point of Contact.”

According to the HUD study on college homelessness, starting in 2009, every college in Colorado has appointed a Single Point of Contact to advise homeless college students. The paper also mentions Fan Chan’s program at UMass Boston called U-Access where students can get personalized help with their case and referrals and take advantage of a food pantry.

Researchers stress the importance of interdepartmental communication to help these students. Offices like financial aid, advising and counseling or health services should build a network so they can serve these students adequately.

While hopping from place to place, Balsirow met other homeless students at The New School. He described sitting in the courtyard between the school’s 11th and 12th street buildings with about a dozen students, all struggling to find housing or to afford food. They would text each other every time there was free food somewhere on campus, and check in about how they were doing, though they never organized regular meetings.

Balsirow now sleeps on the couch of a stand-up comic friend in the East Village. He says the comedy community has been an invaluable support system for him, even if paying his dues is grueling.

As of now, graduating from college remains just a dream — he dropped out of The New School in the middle of his senior year. He says he is thinking of trying to attend again in the fall.