September 11, 2017 | Student Affairs

By Emily TaiYoung person sleeps on concrete outside in the dark

Among the many groups of students who struggle for access to higher education in the United States are the 13% students who have been made homeless by the death or arrest of a custodial parent.  Students can also find themselves without a place to live because of factors related to their sexual orientation.  Undocumented immigrants can also face homelessness.

A study last March from the Wisconsin Hope Lab estimated that possibly as many as possibly half of all students attending community colleges in the United States may be “housing insecure”—meaning that their living situation is unstable or precarious.  Many of these students—as many as 67%, according to the same Wisconsin Hope Lab study– also struggle with food insecurity—a problem that was also analyzed by a recent study of the Urban Institute.

Traditional Schedules, Non-Traditional Students

It is difficult enough for homeless students, some of whom grew up in foster care, to complete high school.  When these students attempt to continue their education in college, however, they often struggle with financial aid requirements that treat students like independent adults for financial and legal purposes, but often are coupled with institutional expectations that students will be traditional college students, who reside with parents who continue to assume responsibility for their housing and food.  Many homeless students work full-time, or substantially longer hours than the twenty hours recommended for college students.  These students can also be adversely affected by the structure of the academic two-semester and quarter systems, which place heaviest academic demands upon students during the period between the Thanksgiving and December holidays–a peak work period, as “Community College Dean” Matt Reed has pointed out, for many students employed in service-industry and retail jobs.  Homeless students also often lack opportunities to sleep and adequate nutrition—both of which undermine their ability to concentrate, and learn.

Helping the Homeless Student at CUNY

As faculty members, we’re often obliged to evaluate the poor academic performance of such students. But, as CUNY faculty, we can also help homeless students—by referring them to the rich array of support services CUNY campuses offer—including Single Stop Offices at each of CUNY’s community colleges; and Food Pantries at Kingsborough, Queensborough, LaGuardia, Guttman, and Bronx Community Colleges, as well as Brooklyn and Lehman College and the College of Staten Island;  Students can also be referred New York City resources listed at CUNY’s website that can help needy students find housing and food.

Scholarships for Homeless Students

There are also a number of national scholarships specifically designed to support homeless, undocumented, and other financially needy students.  These include the Jack Kent Cooke Transfer Scholarship, for students transferring from community college to four-year schools; the  Horatio Alger Scholarship and the DREAM scholarship for undocumented students.

Putting Research into Practice: The CUNY School of Public Health

Such interventions can make a real difference, asserts Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Health and Director of the Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.   Freudenberg, who co-authored a landmark 2011 Study on Food and Housing Insecurity at CUNY, believes that the number of needy CUNY students may even be declining due to such efforts.

Offering help to food- and housing-insecure students can, finally, be a win/win for faculty whose research focuses on food policy and food justice. Last May, the Urban Food Institute convened the CUNY Food Collaboratory, a consortium of scholars, professionals, and students who specialize in various aspects of food studies, and seek to bring their apply their research beyond the academy, in helping to identify practical solutions to a nation-wide problem. The next meeting of the CUNY Food Collaboratory will be in September 2017. For faculty who may be interested, there’s still time to join a working group—just email


Emily S. Tai is a professor of History at Queensborough Community College who serves on the UFS Executive Committee, and edits the UFS Blog.

The UFS Blog is a forum for CUNY Faculty, and welcomes the expression of all points of view.

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photo: Randy Jacob