University homeless students: difficult to identify

Written by: Jocelyn Talavera/Contributing Writer

Alejandro Rizo said he lives off campus with four roommates. Even though he is not homeless, he often looks for food in the University’s food pantries.

“I have enough food throughout the month, but towards the end, I’m scraping by. The pantry allows me to not have to starve myself,” said Rizo, a senior psychology major.

He said most of his scholarship and financial aid go to school expenses.

University students are sleeping in their car, the library, on a friend’s couch or at a shelter, said Ana Ramos, Student Access and Success program director.

“We know that our students face a variety of hardships, including at times homelessness,” said Cathy Akens, Student Affairs associate vice president and dean of students.

Over 58,000 students were identified as homeless on the 2013 Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Florida has had one of the largest increase in homelessness by 14.8 percent since 2007, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Sexual abuse leads to homelessness from 20 to 40 percent and 40 to 60 percent from physical abuse. Some were thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or because of a pregnancy from 20 to 40 percent, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

It is difficult to identify homeless students because their appearance do not reflect their financial status, Ramos said. She said people imagine homeless tattered, unkempt or without hygiene, but that is not normally the case.

“Homelessness carries a stigma, and there are a lot of students that don’t want to be labeled homeless or talk about their status.”

They blend in with everyone else, they don’t reveal their needs or they don’t realize that they qualify as homeless to receive financial aid, she said. Homeless students who prove their living status and wish to pursue a post-secondary education can qualify for a tuition exemption.

Nearly 30 students receive a homeless tuition waiver, making FIU the No. 1 university in the state to give out waivers, according to Ramos. Not all states provide this service and states that do include Florida, Arizona, South Carolina and Texas.

1,015 exemptions were granted in the 2012 to 2013 school year. From 2008 to 2013, that number increased five times each year from the waivers administered in 2008, according to the Florida College System.

To address the needs of former foster care or homeless students, the University created the Fostering Panther Pride program.

The program was launched in 2013, but was established in February 2014. It is comprised of five components.

The first is a College Coach, which provides a contact person for students in need. The student is provided with support and help to navigate the University’s resources.

FIU is the first school in the state of Florida to hire a success coach and to accommodate both former foster care students and homeless students.

The program’s Mentoring Program assigns a student with a trained mentor to help guide them through their undergraduate years.

Meanwhile, its Student Academic Assistance gears towards high school seniors to give them the opportunity to participate in the Golden Scholars Bridge Program. The program is a summer transition academy that helps students improve in academic areas for admission to FIU.

$100,000 in scholarship money is offered for first generation students and finally, University faculty are better assisting the homeless and foster care population through research.

Since the creation of Fostering Panther Pride, Ramos said some don’t even know the program existed. Students need to speak to advisors, who can then send a referral to Ramos if they deem the student is in need.

The food pantries at both the Modesto A. Maidique Campus and the Biscayne Bay Campus serve as a support service for students who struggle financially and do not get enough food. The pantry at the main campus is located in Deuxieme Maison room 166 and in the Wolfe University Center room 307 at the north campus.

“The Dean of Students Office has provided outreach to students in such situations in the past, and our goal is always to help connect student to campus and community resources,” said Akens.

“Our goal is always to work with students to help them remove any obstacles they encounter, as they work toward their academic goals at FIU. We care about students, and we want to see them succeed and graduate.”

Community partnerships such as the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, the Miami Foundation and the Homeless Helpline also give support to the homeless.

Resilience is the one common characteristic among homeless students, said Ramos.

“Despite of being in the situation that they are in, the majority are performing really well in their classes, and that’s really rewarding. They are showing you that they want to graduate and succeed.”


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