Colleges battle to help homeless students

Published 10:24 am Wednesday, June 18, 2014

By Alex Friedrich

Minnesota Public Radio News

Late to the homeless shelter one winter night, William Menday couldn’t get a bed, so he spent the evening riding light rail and buses around the Twin Cities just to stay warm.

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And he still had to finish a paper for class the next morning.

Life as a homeless college student eventually took its toll. Burned out and still broke after a few semesters, Menday dropped out of Minneapolis Community & Technical College in 2012. He does odd jobs now, hoping to earn enough to stabilize his life and finish his education.

Will Menday, 22, said he has been homeless since the age of 17. -- Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Will Menday, 22, said he has been homeless since the age of 17. — Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

College can be a hard course for anyone, but it’s doubly difficult for students who must grapple with school and find a place to sleep each night. Menday was among an estimated 2,500 Minnesota students in college and homeless. It’s a group that goes largely unnoticed and unaided on campuses.

State officials want to change that. College administrators gathered recently to talk over how to support homeless students. Keeping them in school and earning a degree or certificate is good for Minnesota, said Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller. If the state can help them succeed, it will pay dividends later on, he added.

Homeless students tend to gravitate toward community colleges because those campuses are more prevalent and often located near social-service agencies that can meet students’ basic needs, said Jarrett Gupton, a University of Minnesota professor who studies the matter.

Those students may be in difficult circumstances, but homeless advocates say they have typical teenage aspirations.

“They’re your average young person,” said Frances Roen of YouthLink, a nonprofit organization serving homeless youths in the Twin Cities. “When you ask them what are their hopes and dreams for the future, their [answer] would look exactly the same as any 17- or 18-year-old across America.”

YouthLink and other agencies are often key to getting the students into college. Staffers there tell youths about college opportunities, help them fill out college application and financial-aid forms, and help arrange nearby campus tours and meetings with advisers. YouthLink also provides food, clothing, lockers and a mailbox.