Opinion: Stop the stigma around homelessness

In many discussions about college expenses, the focus is disproportionately on tuition. However, studies — much like the recent UW Tacoma survey —  that found 14 percent of students on campus struggle with housing insecurity, which brings the issues of student housing instability and homelessness into the forefront.

Student homelessness is a national crisis. In fact, data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 1,260,721 million students in elementary and secondary schools are facing homelessness. An article from the Seattle Times also reported that in Washington State, three in four of the 41 thousand homeless student population sleep either doubled up — which means sharing a room — or couch surf due to economic challenges or loss of housing. The remaining amount of students live in transitional homes, hotels or report not having any shelter at all.

It is also important to note that black and/or LGBTQ make up a large portion of the homeless student population. In fact, one study found LGBTQ youth make up 40 percent of the homeless student population. Many studies report that the high rates of homelessness for LGBTQ youth are mainly due to the stigma associated with belonging to that community. Some are forced to leave their homes, while others face so much hostility and mistreatment at home that they run away.

Homelessness takes a devastating toll on a student’s academic success. A study from The Schoolhouse Washington found that the graduation rates of homeless students are 55 percent — this is 26 percent lower than students who do have housing. More shockingly, the study found the suspension rates for homeless students are 5 percent higher than students who live in a home.

UWT is making great strides in the fight against student homelessness on college campuses. Earlier this year, the university partnered with Cove’s Development, who built the Koz Apartments, a student complex which has 52 units for low-income students and up to 26 units for homeless students. The Tacoma Housing Authority pays the rent subsidies to a level that the students are able to afford.

The University Y, whose membership is included within UWT tuition, also provides showers, which enable students to maintain a sense of normalcy.

However, there is still much to be done about this issue.

We must stop the stigma around homelessness. Far too often, homeless people are depicted as dirty, mentally ill and/or lazy. But in reality, homelessness does not have a face — rather, homelessness can happen to anyone. While there may be a number of homeless people who choose to be homeless for their own reasons, there are countless others who hadn’t planned on being in a homeless situation. It’s important to remember that the homeless are people, too. Perhaps they were forced on the streets because they have been exiled from their family or abused, or maybe they were a veteran who didn’t receive enough coverage. Whatever the case, it is not okay to treat those who are homeless as less than human.

The stigma attached to homelessness prevents some students from speaking up about their situation. Let’s make sure that when we discuss homelessness, we do so in that promotes love and support — not isolation and othering.