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Fighting student homelessness: the price of education

February 14, 2017

Neuroscience+major+Kerianne+Chen+is+in+her+fifth+year+at+Pitt+as+a+result+of+financial+instability.
Neuroscience major Kerianne Chen is in her fifth year at Pitt as a result of financial instability.

Neuroscience major Kerianne Chen is in her fifth year at Pitt as a result of financial instability.

Photo by Kimberly Prokurat

Photo by Kimberly Prokurat

Neuroscience major Kerianne Chen is in her fifth year at Pitt as a result of financial instability.

This is the first installment of a three-part series on student homelessness.

On the verge of homelessness, University of Pittsburgh student Kerianne Chen turned to a little-known food pantry on Pitt’s campus that offered her basic food to keep her going.

The fifth-year senior was trying to finish her neuroscience degree, but she suffered the death of her father, followed by the bankruptcy of a family restaurant that left her mother unemployed. Chen, destitute, applied for government aid and was denied on bureaucratic grounds.

She was just one of a growing group of college students whose tuitions and living expenses render them little money for food. While there are food banks and other church-based services for the homeless, or those teetering on it, students and others at local universities such as Pitt have created food pantries to provide for those who have nothing to eat.

“There were definitely times when I hypothesized where I would sleep at night or where I would take showers in public if I had to become homeless this year,” Chen said.

According to affordablecollege.org, 58,000 students identified as homeless on the 2013 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a 75 percent increase over the last three years. What’s more, Feeding America, a national network of food banks that provides food assistance to 46.5 million individuals and 15.5 million households, estimates that 49.3 percent of its clients in college must choose between educational expenses and food annually.

Chen has fought to survive since she was a child. She comes from a low-
income immigrant family who moved here from Taiwan before she was born.

“My father passed away, and my mother doesn’t work or speak English, so I got myself here,” Chen said of enrolling at Pitt.

Before her father passed away, her parents owned a restaurant that later went bankrupt. Her mother worked as a waitress there but has not worked since. Chen has had a large responsibility in translating and helping her mother acquire necessary paperwork and services.

On top of her family circumstances, Chen has spent four years unable to completely focus on schoolwork. She has had to split her time between working full-time, doing multiple jobs and volunteer work.

As a result of her  schedule, Chen has ultimately been forced to retake classes. For this last extra semester, she made an agreement with her mom to cover her expenses, clear her schedule and allow her to graduate.

Chen’s problem became acute this past October. It was at this time that her mom agreed to pay her rent. She lives with four other students, and they all split the total cost. As the end of the month neared and the rent was due, her mom did not seem to want to talk about the fact that she did not have the money.

“She told me she can’t support herself anymore, so she can’t continue supporting me,” Chen said.

Soon after this conversation, stress started accumulating, and Chen had to go looking for support.

“I wondered how I could quickly solve the problem,” Chen said. “I only had 100 dollars left and I still had to pay three more months’ rent at least. Then I have to pay bills, and I have to pay for food.”She applied for food stamps but was told that she could only get the food stamps if she worked at least 20 hours a week, a requirement Chen already met through an unpaid internship at West Penn Hospital in the elder life program.

“I thought I was fine,” Chen said, “but when I went to my interview at the office, the lady assigned to me told me I was rejected because even though I work at least 20 hours, I didn’t get paid for it, and the rule is that students specifically need to be paid.”Due to this rule, if Chen dropped out of school and still maintained her internship she could qualify for food stamps, but because she is a student, she has additional stipulations that require earning money.

“Before I left, I was sobbing and crying, and the lady giving me this information pushed a box of tissues towards me,” Chen said. “At this point, I had 16 dollars left to my name, and I didn’t know how I was going to survive.”

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Curbing student homelessness: organizations offer support

Pitt officials told her the only thing they had to offer her was a short- term loan that had to be cleared before graduation.

“Obviously, that wasn’t going to work,” Chen said. “So, with all of this information, I thought I was going to become homeless. At the same time I had this pressure from my roommates to contribute,” Chen said.

When she eventually came clean about her circumstance to her roommates,  and something surprising happened. In November and December, they all joined together to pay her portion of the bill, but she was still financially struggling, causing her to suffer in the classroom.

In the days that followed, Chen tried to call her mom again to see how she was doing; but her mom had disappeared. It would be weeks before she found out her mother was alright.

During her personal chaos and increasing hunger, Chen found a haven to fall back on located in the basement of a church on her very own campus. This hopeful place was the Pitt Pantry.

Her first time using the pantry was a positive experience. While there are no fresh vegetables or other produce, she could get various dinners and bagels collected from local businesses.

“It’s not necessarily the healthiest, and it doesn’t have everything, but it’s better than having no food,” Chen said.

Chen thinks students rarely self identify because they may be scared or embarrassed to express their issue.

The Pitt Pantry was founded two years ago after a myriad of students qualifying as food- insecure came out and asked for support.

Chen thinks students rarely self-identify because they may be scared or embarrassed to express their issue.

“The students reported that there were times in their collegiate careers where they had not been able to purchase nutritious food, or when they had to cut back on eating meals in order to afford other bills,” Erika Ninos said, the sustainability program coordinator for PittServes.

Ninos has been working for the University of Pittsburgh since November of 2014 and plays an important role in preserving the success of the Pantry.

The Pantry is largely run by student volunteers, but is sustained primarily through financial support from the Division of Student Affairs. It is also supported through donations from students, staff, faculty and campus and community organizations. In addition to all of these resources, it creatively partnered up with the campus’s dining service.

“We have access to donated funds through Sodexo’s Dining Dollars donation program, in which students can donate unused Dining Dollars to us at the end of the semester,” Ninos said. “We are able to use this funding to purchase low cost food items through the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.”

Pitt has a consistent turnout of shoppers throughout the academic year, most of which are graduate students.

“During the fall 2016 semester thus far, we have seen 81 shoppers in August and 106 shoppers in September,” Ninos said.

The Pantry not only serves to students in the fall and spring semesters, but they also keep their doors open in the summer.

The Pitt Pantry also offers health and wellness workshops, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) information, food sampling and recipe ideas, coupons and other related programming, like home winterization workshops to the students who walk through their doors.

“Our partners are the Bellefield Presbyterian Church, where we are located, Collegiate YMCA, 412 Food Rescue, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the Food Rescue Heroes, a campus organization, and we have many other student organizations who partner with us to provide various levels of support,” Ninos said.

412 Food Rescue is fairly new, as it was officially up and running in March 2015. The organization works with food retailers like Giant Eagle, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Bruegger’s Bagels to recover food and deliver it to their beneficiaries. They also get food from small local farms and restaurants as well as companies like Paragon, which operate by bringing bulk deliveries to large restaurants.

“We hope to be picking up and delivering for all of the schools in this region in the future,” says Hana Uman said, the program and special projects manager at 412 Food Rescue.

Uman is a passionate member of the rescue service who started working for the organization in February of 2016.

“I believe food is a right, not a privilege,” Uman said. “I think everyone has a right to eat, so in whatever capacity that I can through working at this organization, I will try to give people that.”

She worked in a program at a local Pittsburgh school where most of the children qualified for free and reduced lunch. Almost all of the food from the lunches had to get thrown out because it had been heated up for lunch and couldn’t be served again.

“That was really troubling to me that we were just throwing all of this food away and people may not have any when they get home,” Uman said.

Using her inspiration, she now deals with all of the special programs that work to reduce food waste they have layered on top of their main goal of delivering food to those in need.

At 412 Food Rescue, they work directly with the food service provider at any college or university. For Pitt, they partnered with the Food Recovery Heroes. This is an on campus organization that was doing food recovery already, but 412 worked with them to expand so that they were able to rescue food every day from their dining services and local Bruegger’s and then followed by delivering to one of 412’s sites.

At Chatham University, another partner of 412, students go to their food service provider and rescue any frozen food that’s left over. They also stop by at local grocery stores to rescue any of their food then donate it to a family high-rise in Hazelwood.

“More and more people are using the Pitt Pantry, and I’ve heard other schools are looking into this as well because they’re seeing that there is definitely a need,”  Uman said.

While these services are still developing, students have yet to be shown the same amount of attention. The research and services are developing for this demographic but there is still work to be done.

“This is a huge problem and we’re not going to solve it but if we can strive towards fixing it and partner with other people in Pittsburgh and beyond, that’s more power to all of us,” Uman said.

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Resolving student homelessness: moving forward

Point+Park+offers+various+services+that+assists+students+in+need+through+advising%2C+counseling%2C+financial+aid+departments+and+student+accounts.
Point Park offers various services that assists students in need through advising, counseling, financial aid departments and student accounts.

Point Park offers various services that assists students in need through advising, counseling, financial aid departments and student accounts.

Photo by Nikole Kost

Photo by Nikole Kost

Point Park offers various services that assists students in need through advising, counseling, financial aid departments and student accounts.

Food service providers such as the Pitt Pantry and 412 Food Rescue are partnered with specific universities, however, minors in need on a broader spectrum can turn to the Homeless Children’s Education Fund in Pittsburgh.

The non-profit organization began when its founder, Dr. Joseph Lagana, combined $7,000 left over from retirement, one loan and his passion for children in need. The now million-dollar organization connects with the roughly 3,000 homeless kids in Allegheny County and college-ready students in hopes that higher education can be an option for them.

“The thing that we’re doing that has the greatest impact is identifying kids who have potential to go through college and getting them to apply, getting them to enroll, getting them to participate and have them being mentored,” Lagana said. “To me, that’s the biggest payoff because I know they are going to break the cycle of poverty.”

This transition started when Lagana, a superintendent at the time, said he had found three kids who were experiencing homelessness, were extremely bright, but had no dream about going to college.

He took the opportunity to get those students into the Pittsburgh Technology Institute on scholarships. Two of the students ended second and third in their class.

Point Park is one university Lagana has worked with to combat student financial struggles, working directly with Dean of Students Keith Paylo.

“It occurred to me that there probably were homeless kids attending school who colleges did not realize,” Lagana said. “So I said to a partner with Paylo that we should bring all of the 10 colleges and universities in Pittsburgh together and let’s find out how many they think they have with a conversation.”

Only seven of the universities showed up that day in April. Among the seven, close to 30 kids were identified as possibly homeless or unaccompanied. Now the universities are starting to take a look at ways to create some common programming like a food bank at every one of them.

Paylo represented Point Park for the meeting.

“The difficult part of this issue is identification,” Paylo said.

Lagana believes the homeless community is expanding and that there are two reasons for that: the recession and increased identification.

The students experiencing these lifestyles are often not just losing a home or food, they are also gaining a toxicity no one can comfortably live through. They experience nutrition issues, health and stress issues and self-esteem issues.

“The most basic thing is that I want [the homeless] to know is there is a human being that cares enough to pay attention to their circumstance and not care how they got into that circumstance,” Lagana said. “Not to think poorly about them, but purely want to help them from their heart.”

In the group, Paylo mentioned the first avenue the schools should hit is the financial aid records, where he anticipates cases with zero family contributions. Once he finds the people who can be categorized as low income, he will then be able to search for their housing statuses.

After doing his own research, he plans to identify and help these students through surveying. The surveys could occur through different social media outlets like email or Twitter. Although these students may be financially struggling, research has shown that most homeless people do have a phone or access to a phone.

“A lot of times these individuals don’t want to raise their hands because they’re embarrassed, and this isn’t something that is a popular thing,” Paylo said. “Plus homelessness is acquainted with drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness, but these aren’t the case.”

With financial records and surveying, Point Park will try to find the data necessary to narrow down what may be a big list of the zero-dollar expected family contributions.

Point Park is in the infancy stage of developing the tools to help, in contrast to Duquesne, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, who all have food banks. However, being located in downtown Pittsburgh means students who need help can easily find the resources without much effort.

“On our campus, because it doesn’t seem to be widespread with the little research we’ve done, I don’t really know if there is any homelessness at Point Park,” Paylo said. “We have been either fortunate or just not aware enough, but that’s where we need to get.”

At Point Park, there are various services that assist students with advising and counseling through the financial aid department and student accounts offices. These services offer creative ways to apply for additional resources and where to go for them.

One of the largest contributors toward the identification issue at Point Park is the fact that students do not have to give their current address to any office for any accounts. On top of this, about 70 percent of Point Park’s student population is made up of commuters. This could potentially mean that a portion of that 70 percent does not have a place to go after their classes end or have a source for food.

If a student truly has nowhere to go, they can always express their circumstance with the school. Paylo admits that he has made exceptions for students who have nowhere to turn.

“I think society has changed in the sense that they’re accepting that people need help sometimes and no one should go hungry in this country,” Paylo said.

As for Kerianne Chen, the University of Pitt student who advocated for the Pitt Pantry at the start of this journey, only has six classes left in her academic career. She has had to pick and choose which classes to focus her attention on in order to survive.

She and her mom last spoke in early December. They did not talk about what happened to her mom on their break of silence, but they did talk about paying the rest of her rent for upcoming months.

Chen hopes to go back home soon and make amends with her mom before she graduates.

“It’s been unbearable, but I still feel so lucky to have my friends because if I didn’t have this network of support, I would not be here,” Chen said.

Her story is rare, but it is not the only one; she does not know anyone else going through similar struggles, but this is not because other people like her do not exist.

She urges people who may be low income or under pressure to reach out to those around them. Looking for assistance in one’s own community or school services may prove to be helpful.

“People are extremely kind and it’s because we don’t deserve to be struggling alone,” Chen said. “It’s amazing how kind people are.”

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