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They're college students. They're homeless. Their schools have no clue.

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They're college students. They're homeless. Their schools have no clue.

WATCH  | Nicole and Jayvon are homeless college students and they're part of a growing crop of similar people seeking higher education.

She goes to a school where tuition, room and board cost more than $35,000 a year, has $12,000 in loans and is majoring in radio, TV and film.

Nicole Bratcher-Bouyer, 20, sounds like your average college student, but there's something few, including her school up until recently, know about her: She's homeless.

Bratcher-Bouyer is one of 58,000 homeless college students in the U.S., according to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year. She's part of a community experts fear is growing.

One thing that we often think about when we think about homelessness is a stereotype--a man sleeping on the streets, but that's really not the case.
Mark Keierleber, education reporter at The 74

Researchers say the average age of a homeless person is 35 to 45, but there's a subset of homeless people who are in their teens and 20s and pursuing college degrees.

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Nicole, 20, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father passed away when she was six years old, and her mother had a stroke in 2012, leaving her to rely on friends for housing.

An invisible population

It's difficult to say how many homeless college students there are. The 58,000 figure only refers to people who filled out the FAFSA.

"We really, really don't [know]. There are no federal data sets tracking this," Sara Goldrick-Rab said.

Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist who's lead national surveys to track the population, will tell you that the FAFSA's number doesn't give you the full picture.

The '58,000' statistic

"That's the number of people who did a bunch of things," Goldrick-Rab said. "They enrolled in college. Second, they filled out the complete FAFSA form. A lot of people start those forms and never finish them."


Goldrick-Rab commissioned a study with 10 community colleges in 2015 to get a better picture of the problem. She found that 13 percent of community college students were homeless. The McKinney-Vento Act keeps track of homeless youth in K-12 schools, not in higher ed.

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Under the McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to keep track of how many homeless students are in public K-12 schools. That puts the 2016 number at 1.3 million. It's unclear how many of those go on to college homeless.

Redefining homelessness

When people think of homeless people, chances are they think of a "man sleeping on the streets," says Mark Keierleber, a reporter at  The Seventy Four, a non-profit covering education in America. "But that's really not the case."

Bratcher-Bouyer, for instance, may sleep in an air-conditioned room while she's in school, but she doesn't have a home to go to in Chicago, her hometown.

...lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.
HUD's definition of homeless

Because her mom lives in a nursing home and her older brother lives in a homeless shelter, Bratcher-Bouyer has nowhere to go home to in Chicago, so she fits the Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of the word, as do others at four-year residential colleges/universities.

The faces of homelessness

They range from 18- to 60-year-olds. Some of them live out of their cars, while others enjoy air-conditioned dorms for nine months out of the year. Meet two of them here.

Why they're homeless

"We're really not sure why the numbers are going up," said Barbara Duffield, executive director at Schoolhouse Connection, a national organization dedicated to helping homeless youth.

But she's confident the recession has something to do with it.

"The recovery from the recession hasn't really reached the poorest of families yet, so some of the families who are struggling the most haven't seen the benefits of that recovery."

Why Nicole is homeless

Ask Bratcher-Bouyer, and she can link back her homelessness to a specific cause.

"I started experiencing homelessness as a college student in about 2012 when my mom had a stroke," Bratcher-Bouyer told Circa.

She said her family was never well off, but the second her single mother had to stop working to live in a nursing home full-time, the money stopped coming in.

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Nicole said that while her family of three (older brother, mom and her) was never well off, they had all the necessities up until 2012 when a stroke took her mother out of the workforce. 

'I became a primary caregiver for my mother'

"When I was 15, I became a primary caregiver for my mother," said Bratcher-Bouyer. "I fell asleep in most of my classes in high school because I would be up all night taking care of my mom."

Her older brother dropped out of high school to start working full-time, but it wasn't enough. They had to move out of their house and move in with friends.

I caught a train home. It was a 13-hour ride, and the whole 13 hours, I was trying to figure out where I was going to go when I got there.
Nicole Bratcher-Bouyer

And that's how it's been since. The summer of her freshman year, she stayed with a friend in South Carolina, where she tried to find a job.

"That whole summer that I was down in South Carolina, I had $2 to my name. I couldn't find any jobs," said Bratcher-Bouyer.

Paying for Howard

Bratcher-Bouyer forewent going to a cheaper commuter college in Chicago for two reasons.

  1. She always wanted to go to a historically black university.
  2. Going to a residential school, like Howard, would give her housing for nine months out of the year.

How does she pay the steep tuition? She has $12,000 in loans and works three jobs.
"I tutor children. I works as a concierge at a temp agency. I clean dorms here and there."

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The FAFSA recently loosened its requirements for filing as an "independent." It used to be that only students who were 24 and older could file without their parents' tax returns.

Resources available

Students like Bratcher-Bouyer have few institutional resources, in part because their colleges don't know they're homeless.

"When I went to financial aid, they were surprised to know that I was homeless. I guess there's not a list or anything around," she said.

Bratcher-Bouyer used to have food stamps to help pay for groceries and financial aid is certainly a great help. But housing is always an issue.

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Jayvon Cox, 24, is a community college student at UDC in Washington, D.C. He's been homeless for five years now and says his mom didn't "want him in the house" anymore.

Some community colleges, like the NOVA network of schools in Northern Virginia, have an emergency fund for students who are having trouble paying their rent, for instance.

Homeless shelters for college students

Some schools like UCLA and Harvard University have opened up homeless shelters on campus for students.

Some community colleges are also launching initiatives to help.

"It is allowable to use [federal] dollars to support students who are in college," said Goldrick-Rab. "The Takoma Housing Authority is using those dollars ... to provide subsidized housing to community college students."

What can schools do?

Goldrick-Rab who's written a book, titled "Paying the Price," has some suggestions for institutions trying to lend a helping hand.

"California State University is currently listing a job opening right now whose job it will be to deal with the basic food and housing needs of their students."

She said in an ideal world, every college and university would have a person to "first notice and then serve" homeless students.

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Nicole says she has more spending money now. 

Working the system

Last year, she started a club called "Go Fund the Mecca" which raised funds to help students pay off outstanding balances. Schools can only do so much. In the meantime, Bratcher-Bouyer is hoping a residential assistant position in one of the Howard dorms will give her free housing for the summer.

"Do I put my money towards my tuition to stay in school? Do I put it towards this food that I need? Do I put it towards saving money to get my own apartment for breaks? It's a lot of stress trying to come up with that."

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