By: Vanessa Lauren
More than 4.2 million adults 18-24 struggle with housing insecurity. 1.3 million are students. 500,000 end up dropping out of school. 100 Las Vegas organizations focused on putting an end to homelessness, yet the numbers continue to rise.
“I have served at least 120 students suffering from the risk of homelessness and/ or food insecurity since the fall semester began,” said UNLV Special Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs Stephanie Cooper. “This is an absorbent amount of student issues and covers a myriad of issues.”
Cooper is part of the UNLV Support Team that helps students who are experiencing challenges such as financial, housing, and food insecurity. This is accomplished through partnering with other departments on campus like the student health center, the UNLV cares food pantry, and the HOPE scholars program.
“The university has resources to provide assistance, including our food pantry, emergency grants which students may be eligible for, and access to safe housing and basic necessities,” said Scott Hoffman Care Manager for the UNLV Support Team. “The stress of a student’s situation impacts mental health. An inability to afford a doctor visit impacts physical health. An unreliable internet connection may make completing classwork difficult. It becomes a very difficult cycle.”
In addition to these resources, a new initiative has been developed through UNLV’s Office of Community Engagement. Partnering with the City of Las Vegas, the College of Southern Nevada, United Way of Southern Nevada, and the National League of Cities (NLC) they have put together a peer-learning cohort.
“The goal of the initiative is to explore ways to remove barriers to student success by addressing such issues as housing, food, and transportation insecurity. As well as child care, mental health, and digital access needs,” said Sue DiBella Interim Executive Director of UNLV Office of Community Engagement. “This initiative is just getting started, and our first step is to gather data. The [next] step is to learn more about student needs, and I’m pleased to say our survey will help address this.” However, initiatives like this only touch the surface of the issue.
“It’s getting worse,” said Dr. Nicholas Barr, Assistant Professor of Social Work and expert in Youth Homelessness. “We see homeless numbers going up. We are seeing the number of homeless youth going up.”
“The city with the worst youth homelessness is Las Vegas.” – Dr.Barr
According to Barr the solution to the problem lies in the hands of policymakers and organizations like the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“You can’t talk about homelessness without talking economics,” said Barr. “People are homeless because they cannot afford homes…I think the university should look at where they can access funds or scholarship opportunities to provide free tuition to students who’ve experienced homelessness.”
According to the Southern Nevada Homeless Census Survey, 82 percent of homeless youth are living unsheltered every night. A previous undergraduate who agreed to go by “J” shared their homeless student experience and how it was economical.
“The reason I was homeless was because of family situations. I had no family to go to during the time and I was alone. Although I was never completely homeless I did live in my car and showered at my friend’s houses. Sometimes I was able to get a hotel and a shower,” J explained. “I think the idea of homelessness gets muddled into something completely negative. All you think of is someone who’s ‘dirty’ and living on the sidewalks, begging for money.”
“Understand that [there is a difference between] people going in and out of couch surfing staying with friends or family temporarily and living paycheck to paycheck versus being on the physical street,” said Petering.
“It’s such a thin line between stable and unstable. House vs no house. You’re at an age where you haven’t built up savings. You don’t have as much of a social network so I feel that young people are at the highest risk for homelessness.” – Dr. Petering
Being financially independent and struggling brought a new challenge to J. With no guidance and no help they admit they did not make the best decisions due to their mental state.
“Getting a job while being homeless is very different depending on a person’s situation and mental health. I was not able to perform well because of major clinical depression and anxiety issues,” said J. “People who undergo poverty have experienced eviction or addiction or rehab. Sometimes when people succeed from mental health issues they have no one to come back to and relapse.”
Add the pressure and stress of college and it seems like too much to ask of anyone. “I had no job but did get approved for FAFSA loans so I did college online because I was embarrassed by my situation,” said J.
J no longer struggles with homelessness but still has concern for homeless students. “I wish there were more programs installed to help me. I wish there were more programs now. Especially for young people who have no one to go back to” said J.
Millions of young people find themselves in J’s position every year which is why organizations like Lens. Co and The National Network For Youth (NN4Y) focus on talking with policymakers and educating the public.
Director of Youth Partnerships Yorri Berry-Harris trains homeless youth to have conversations with Congress and organizations like The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). Making sure young people and young voices are part of the conversation is what NN4Y strives for. They hope this will help remove the pushback they often feel from policymakers.
“I would say one of the issues we face from policymakers [are] that youth homelessness is not a priority,” said Berry-Harris. “I’m not saying they don’t care.”
“I’m saying when it’s time to pass new legislation and reauthorize funding for existing policies homelessness takes a back seat.” – Yorri Berry-Harris
Another big issue youth homelessness faces is funding. According to the government spending explorer as of September 30, 2020, the US government has spent 9.9 trillion dollars. The Community and Regional Development spending of 183 million dollars makes up 1.9% with 2 million allotted to policy development. The smallest amount of the budget.
“With the COVID pandemic youth homelessness has definitely increased and federal and state responses have not matched anywhere close to the need,” said Berry-Harris. Inclusion of the LBGTQ+ community and the one size fits all mentality are also issues these organizations face.
“A lot of times there is funding to group homelessness together,” Berry-Harris explained. “Homelessness for a sixty-year-old single man on the street looks very different from homelessness for a student who is in college. Those demographics are very different. The needs of those demographics are very different.”
NN4Y has had success in creating policy in the past. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1974 (RHYA) has provided the foundations for educating American communities. Their response is specifically done through the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Made up of five major components: street outreach, basic center, transitional housing, a national communications system, and a national technical assistance center. These components educate the community. Create temporary housing facilities. Connect young people and their families who are in crisis with prevention services. As well as provide training to grantees. They do not, however, solve the issue of homelessness.
“People don’t become homeless because they have mental health problems. They don’t become homeless because of substance problems,” explained Barr.
“Every serious scholar of homelessness knows the solution to homelessness and it’s to provide housing.” -Dr. Barr
Berry-Harris says in addition to providing housing there is a need for better aftercare programs. Especially for youth who oftentimes find themselves homeless due to factors outside of their control. Such as a violent or abusive home environment, poverty that stems from caretakers, being a part of the LBGTQ+ community, or aging out of the foster care system.
“You can give them housing but if they don’t have the educational resources they need or the economic resources they need they can’t find employment,” said Berry-Harris. “ [If] they don’t have mental health services or adequate health care they are probably going to end up back homeless.”
At the university level, these experts agree surveys and food pantries are a great start but far from the solution. The problems homeless students are dealing with are so much bigger.
“Young people in poverty are working harder. They’re putting in more time and having to deal with so many things at the same time. And they’re young like 21, 22,” said Petering. “There’s a conception that if you’re a young person in poverty you have to grow up ten years younger than anyone else. And if you don’t do that then you’re not doing it right. That’s so unfair because we’re stealing childhood and experiences away from people in poverty because of things that are not their fault.”
Berry-Harris said when it comes to being homeless and completing school at the same time it’s a lot to ask of anyone.
“To not have housing, adequate food, access to a stable caring adult and still be able to learn and to thrive is a lot [and] they’re coming to the table a bit behind in terms of resources.” – Yorri Berry-Harris
Barr says more partnerships like the one UNLV has with NFC need to be done at more universities. The community can do more than donate and volunteer. Write to your congressmen and women. Read up on the topic. Stay informed. Partner with your local organizations to help advocate and shed light on the issue.
“We are all on the same side and have the same goal,” said Petering. “Once we can shift the mindset and form better conversations things will start getting better.”