While freshman year on campus is likely to be one of the most chaotic times many of us will ever experience, other students experience this time as their initial taste of true stability. For students who experienced homelessness throughout their primary school years, freshman dormitories are the first spaces they can really call their own.
The freshman experience at Ole Miss is designed to meet just about every need a student can imagine. Freshmen are required to live together in dorms on campus. Every student has a meal plan. We have public transportation, workout facilities, a counseling center and even tiny convenience stores to pick up odds and ends with flex money. The tuition and fees required to gain access to campus are quite an obstacle, but once you have received scholarships or worked out a payment plan to be here, your living situation is pretty well set.
This is not the case for many students receiving their primary education.
In early September, the Chicago Tribune reported that more than 16,000 students in their city experience homelessness while attending school. These unhoused students include not only those who live without shelter completely but also students who are provided temporary housing in shelters, live in cars or “crash” on the couches of friends or family. In addition to the stress and burden of typical childhood development and educational pressure, these students have to worry about finding shelter each night. Unlike the ideal freshman experience on our university’s campus, unhoused students are expected to succeed academically without the prerequisite stable conditions.
Mississippi’s efforts to assist unhoused youth do not inspire confidence. The most recent available data comes from the 2016-2017 school year in which the Mississippi Department of Education reported nearly 11,000 homeless students in our state. School districts within the state received grants to combat this crisis, but the state’s total award amount equates to less than $66 per unhoused student.
Not only is this level of funding clearly insufficient to mitigate this extensive problem, but the grants are also not used to directly combat homelessness. The grants may be used to provide services such as “after-school tutoring, supplemental instruction and enriched educational activities.” Sure, this additional instruction may improve grades marginally, but I’m willing to make the bold claim that our school system should be about more than just producing A’s and high ACT scores. These grants could have a more direct positive impact on unhoused students if they are used to provide actual necessities like housing, clothing, hygiene items and food.
We already possess a partial solution to the obstacles that unhoused students face. Campuses with housing scholarships seem to provide an adequate model for providing students with needs-based housing. Why not expand this framework to include students getting their primary education too? Even without raising taxes to pay for this new program, Mississippi could redirect the grant money awarded for addressing the student homelessness crisis from supplemental instruction and toward housing options for unhoused students. Redirecting the current grants would not provide nearly enough funding to meet the need, but it would be a good place to start.
If we establish a need-based program that provides students with housing in scholarship communities, more students will be able to focus on their homework instead of finding a home.
Amy Cain is a senior philosophy and political science major from Southaven, Mississippi.