“It Seems Impossible” — Homeless, Low Income Oregonians Navigate Basic Needs in College

May 13, 2021

 

Theresa Mai stirs onions in her kitchen in Corvallis, Oregon.
Credit Melorie Begay / KLCC News

Attending higher education can be exciting. Not only is it an opportunity to learn, it’s a chance to make new friends and engage in new experiences. But navigating college can be even more challenging if students’ basic needs aren’t met. 

63% of surveyed Oregon community college students experienced some kind of basic needs insecurities in 2019. That number, which doesn’t include students at universities, has most likely increased during the pandemic and after last year’s devastating wildfires. 

But in order to even access higher education, students must first graduate high school or receive their GED. A task that can be daunting for any student, but particularly so for students experiencing homelessness. According to Voices of Youth Count, not completing high school is the single greatest risk factor associated with experiencing unaccompanied homelessness as a young person. 

An illustration of Kathleen with her children, contemplating housing, family and college.
Credit Lauren Ibanez

Oregon School Districts, Nonprofits Work To Re-Engage, Empower Youth Who Are Homeless

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Nationally, 35% of youth without a high school degree or GED reported homelessness within the prior year. That number doesn’t include youth who identified as couch surfing, or experienced other forms of housing insecurity. Young adults who did not complete high school or receive their GED were 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than students who completed high school.

 

Helping these students experiencing homelessness in Oregon can be challenging, as the state has one of the highest numbers of youth homelessness in the county.  

 

 

 

An illustration of Marichelle Gurski, Kathleen Rodríguez Pérez and Yoyo.

Low Income Students In Oregon Struggle To Afford Higher Education

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Higher education is not for everyone. But for some, it can be a pathway out of poverty. On the other hand, being able to afford college in Oregon while low income isn’t easy. The state provides the least amount of financial aid compared to others on the west coast. 

 

The cost of higher education isn’t just tuition and fees. Books, transportation, housing, food and other expenses can all add up. Although there are efforts to provide more funding to the neediest students, it’s uncertain if these policies will pass. Even if they do, it’s hard to tell how many students this will be able to help, and if it will truly make a long-term difference in the cost of attendance. 

n illustration of Myrtle sitting in a greenhouse, contemplating buying groceries or paying for housing.

Oregon’s Affordable Housing Crisis Impacts College Students

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Oreogn has the 13th highest housing wage in the nation. Since college students are not eligible to live in affordable housing units, finding shelter at a low cost can be difficult. Some universities have created emergency funds to help students meet their basic needs, but that money only goes so far.

So for some students, higher education isn’t even accessible. For others, they’re willing to experience housing insecurity or even homelessness just so they can attend college. 

 

An illustration of Theresa Mai and Dray Aguirre, and their experiences with food insecurity.
Credit Lauren Ibanez

Navigating Basic Needs at Oregon’s Universities and Colleges

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Statewide, roughly 1 in 4 Oregonians are experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

In 2019, 41% of surveyed Oregon community college students experienced food insecurity. Less than a third of those students applied for the federal food assistance program to help prevent food insecurity. Many students said they didn’t apply because they thought they would take away resources from needier families — a common misconception about the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Other students didn’t know this resource is available at all.

But students and advocates are hoping more conversations about basic needs insecurities could not only lead to more resources, but also take away the social stigma associated with this program. 

 

KLCC also held a virtual engagement session on SNAP. This opportunity allowed community members statewide to learn best practices for applying, how to appeal an application if wrongfully denied, and other benefits people could be eligible for if they apply for the federal program. 

 

The event included a presentation from Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, SNAP-Ed with the Oregon State University Extension Program, and an employee from the Oregon Department of Human Services. These representatives were also available to answer community members’ questions about SNAP in both English and Spanish. 

 

The recorded event can be viewed below.

 

This project was made possible by a grant from the Education Writers Association.