Homeless Aztecs find little aid on campus


by Leonardo Castaneda

Social work senior David Armstrong’s passion for helping people living in homelessness began when he was in the Navy in the early 2000s.

While preaching the gospel, he noticed large groups of people living on the streets.

“There was a need, so I started getting food and clothing and giving it to them,” Armstrong said. “I desired more and more to help people, to help the poor, and really my faith; again, it was a passion.”

In 2009 he moved to San Diego, and by 2011 he was attending San Diego State. By that time Armstrong had separated from his wife and was living far from his family in Texas. He had left school for a semester, and most of the people he knew in the social work program had graduated.

“Structure (had) kind of fallen by the wayside,” Armstrong said.

When Fall 2013 started, he was commuting from the South Bay to school and his internship at the Salvation Army. He was struggling with some debt and was relying on the GI Bill. The financial and mental strain of the daily commute slowly wore him down, and not long into the semester, Armstrong was living in his car.

[quote]“I am technically homeless by choice, even though I don’t want to be,” he said.[/quote]

Armstrong, now 31, had gone from helping those struggling with homelessness to living with it.

“It’s funny; the thing that I’ve struggled with in this time period is the same thing that I want to help people with,” he said.

Like many other students struggling with housing, Armstrong eventually met Reverend Darin Johnson of the Agape House, an Episcopal-Lutheran campus ministry center near SDSU. The center is one of a number of religious houses near campus. According to Johnson, students living in homelessness will stop by, out of curiosity or desperation for a place to rest, as well as for the weekly free meals the center offers on Wednesdays.

Because of that, Johnson has become something of an informal leader in the small but growing movement at SDSU to better identify students struggling with housing and food insecurity and provide more services to help them.

Johnson has seen students from all academic backgrounds and grade levels struggle with homelessness and food insecurity.

Sometimes efforts to attract potential students can place them under enormous strains if there isn’t enough financial assistance and follow-through, Johnson said.

“We know there’s some really good programs to get people into SDSU,” Johnson said. “But once they’re here, housing and food is a real pinch for a lot of people.”

The SDSU Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships estimates the cost of attendance for the nine-month academic period for a student living in university housing to be $25,068. That includes tuition and fees, rent, food, books, transportation and personal expenses. Living in off-campus housing is cheaper, $22,728 for the academic year. Still, a student working a minimum wage job would have to work 355 8-hour workdays to afford that. And that wouldn’t begin to cover rent and food expenses during the three months of summer break not included in the cost of attendance.

Johnson has seen students of all ages—from freshmen to seniors, straight out of high school and returning veterans—slowly go down the same spiral. First, they would struggle paying rent, eventually ending up living in their car. Then they would be forced to sell their car, opting to live in the 24-hour section of the library and shower at the gym.

“Imagine the impact of that on your mental health, if this is your hope to escape poverty and you’re seeing it just slip away right before your eyes,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to watch that happen anymore.”

Johnson said he felt called to help and reached out to Irma Murphy, communication resource specialist at SDSU’s Student Health Services. Together with Justice Overcoming Boundaries, an organization that trains community leaders to address social issues, and several religious groups near campus, Johnson and Murphy organized a task force.

The first step, Murphy said, is to know the scope of the problem.

[quote]“It’s kind of like this silent epidemic, if you will,” she said. “Now, I don’t know how wide this problem is, but I feel like the numbers are growing.”[/quote]

Murphy isn’t alone; little is known about how many students struggle with homelessness during college. They can be hard to track because, according to Murphy, they don’t fit the profile for most organizations aimed at helping those living in homelessness. Many of them live in their cars or couch surf, and it’s not uncommon for their homelessness to be temporary—a few weeks or months.

In 2011, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid began asking students if they were homeless or at risk of homelessness. According to CNN Money, documents obtained by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth stated more than 58,000 FAFSA applicants answered that they were homeless in the 2012-13 academic year. That was an 8 percent increase from the year before.

The economic recession continues to affect students and their families, Murphy said. Many students can’t ask their parents for help, especially when they are already struggling to pay their son or daughter’s tuition.

It can also be hard for students to support themselves financially. In December 2013, the unemployment rate for 20 to 24 year olds was 10.2 percent, the same as 2008 when the financial downturn first began. However, since then tuition and fees at SDSU have increased $1,506.

Not a lot of services are available, Murphy said. When a student is referred to her, she tries to determine what resources they do have. Then she gives them information about local food banks, although students aren’t always eligible for aid.

“For me the biggest challenge is finding shelter, and I cringe because I know there’s not a lot available,” Murphy said.

The Aztec called the SDSU Office of Housing Administration for a comment on this story. They replied that OHA doesn’t deal with student homelessness, and referred the call to the SDSU Police Department instead.

Once Murphy and Johnson’s new task force identifies the size of the problem and any services available, Murphy said it plans to approach members of the university administration with a full picture.

“I think the biggest problem is that the university is unaware of the numbers and how these numbers are increasing,” Murphy said.

One of the biggest challenges, however, might be overcoming the stigma surrounding homelessness. According to Murphy, counselors or professors direct students to her, or they come for medical referrals. It’s only after talking with the students that she finds out they might not have a place to live and have been couch surfing for weeks.

Johnson has had similar experiences.

“One-on-one, I start hearing truth. Once you’re with people and they realize you’re not going to judge them, they tell you what they’re really dealing with,” he said.

Meanwhile, Armstrong hopes to move to a house in City Heights soon. It’s closer to campus than his previous home, and his debt load is finally under control. But what he wants most is to develop a true sense of community.

“I don’t want compassion,” he said. “I want understanding.”

Photo by Ana Ceballos, Managing Editor