Reducing Basic Needs Insecurity

The numbers are staggering: Tuition at post-secondary institutions increased 34% between 2008 and 2015 while prices for college textbooks have increased 88% since 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Meanwhile the Wisconsin HOPE Lab has found that between 30–50% of students experience housing insecurity and another 5–14% are homeless.

When low-income students pay for college in the United States, it’s often with the help of the Federal Pell Grant program. The grants paid for 75% of post-secondary costs 40 years ago, but the maximum award last year ($5,290) covered only 29% of the cost of a four-year public institution. There was recently some good news for the 7.6 million low-income students who use the program, as the maximum award was raised to $6,095 and eligibility was expanded to include summer terms, not just spring and fall.

To help meet basic student needs, more and more campuses and student unions are transitioning and revamping resources and services, developing one-stop resource centers and online registries of resources and options, expanding community collaborations, and implementing innovative ways to cut costs and help students cover expenses.

These ideas include integrating screening and application assistance for public benefits with other student services like registration and financial aid assistance and having a student resource center in the union that offers showers, storage lockers, refrigerators and freezers, and free coffee to both commuter students and students in need. End-of-semester programs where left-behind items like microwaves, furniture, clothing, and other items are collected and redistributed to others are becoming common, and student life offices are taking the lead in forming advisory committees and task forces that advocate for and institutionalize support of students facing housing and basic needs insecurity.

One thing Carol Petersen, associate director at the University of Illinois–Chicago’s Center for Health, Education and Wellness, is campaigning for is a housing support program similar to the swipe sharing program that many university meal card programs are adopting. She said that when a student who has paid for housing leaves school early, their contract normally does not allow for any refunds. Why then, she asked, could that income not be put toward a housing support program for students facing housing insecurity or homelessness?

“It’s the same concept but a different application,” she said. “They don’t get that money back, and it could pay for another student getting a place to stay.”

Peterson offered these insights into working with students whose basic needs and security might be in question.

  • Recognize that a homeless student is not necessarily observable. They often work hard to develop a sense of anonymity and to be viewed as an equal to their peers.

  • Don’t overwhelm them with what you are going to do for them, which can be hard in this career line because “we’re problem-solvers.” Allow them to tell you how they can be helped; you have to listen to them.

  • Don’t ask them how they got to where they are; they don’t need to feel revictimized. When they tell you that painful story you’ve reopened that wound.

  • Be transparent with them in whatever you are doing.

  • Identify yourself as a future resource as these students often don’t have adults in their lives they can trust or who have resources.

  • Know where to find information about the available resources are on campus to address housing, food, and financial insecurity, and have that information available at the Union information desk.

  • When they walk away be sure they maintain their dignity, their pride, and their sense of self value. Ask questions about their interests, their degree, their professional goals, so they are reminded about something they feel strongly about and are committed to achieving.

  • Acknowledge that as a professional you’ve been honored to help them get to that next step in their life. These students may not be very trusting, but you will find they are determined and resilient.


The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth notes that stereotypes of homelessness do not match the reality of most young adults who have lost their homes, but it does point to some common signs of youth homelessness.

Those can include:

  • Difficulties in school, including frequent absences, consistent lack of preparation, lack of supplies, and loss of books and other supplies on a regular basis.

  • Paperwork and documentation challenges like lack of needed immunization and health records.

  • Social and behavioral concerns like extreme shyness, resistance to forming relationships, difficulty trusting people, poor self-esteem, and marked changes in behavior.

  • Poor hygiene, including lack of consistent access to shower and laundry facilities, wearing the same clothes repeatedly, and inconsistent grooming.

  • Statements made by the student, like "I've been moving around a lot," "I'm staying with friends for a while," and "I'm going through a tough time."

Numerous schools have developed and advocate others to develop campus resource toolkits that provide a one-stopshop for information on how to obtain different forms of assistance. The toolkits usually contain information about how to access student assistants (professional case workers), where to find facilities like showers, kitchens, and storage, where to find off-campus shelters and food pantries, where to access computers, study areas, and recharging stations, and if emergency funds are available in certain situations. Union and activities professionals can be instrumental in helping to serve students lacking basic needs security by both learning about this population and identifying ways to integrate services into existing operations.


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