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Nov. 8, 2012

Student overcomes struggle of being homeless

Homelessness affects those of all ages, reaches farther than city

By Amanda Duncan

“I never thought I would know homelessness” are the words that come from a woman who sits outside the Michael Swartz Library on a sunny afternoon in October.

Alison Lancaster’s typical day starts with getting up at 7 a.m. She spends one and a half to two hours on a bus to get here for her class at 10 a.m. In the afternoon, she begins to worry about having a place to sleep. She weighs her options and calls around, solidifying safety with her informal network of friends, friends of friends and people letting her sleep in their basements. She takes the bus to a food bank, eats, and gets back on the bus to the shelter if she doesn’t find any other place to go.

Have you glanced around in your classroom and looked into the faces of your fellow students and wondered if any of them had to worry about where they were going to sleep that night?

“I basically live online,” Lancaster said. “Friends email gift cards so I go get what I need and make it last. My parents send me money from Wisconsin, but they are supposed to be enjoying their retirement, not spending it on me.”

When filling out job applications, she puts friends’ addresses or the shelter’s address, but she wonders if the employer will see the shelter address and associate her with negative stereotypes of homeless people like “the old homeless, the ones who are on drugs and with a drug problem.”

Homelessness can be defined in four broad categories according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

One category concerns people who are living in places not meant for human habitation — emergency shelters, transitional housing or exiting a place where they temporarily resided if they were in a shelter or somewhere not meant for human habitation before entering the institution. People will be considered homeless if they are exiting an institution where they resided for up to 90 days and were homeless immediately prior to entering that institution.

The second category is people who are losing their primary nighttime residence, which may include a motel, hotel, or a doubled up situation within 14 days and lack resources or support networks to remain in housing.

The third category concerns families with children or unaccompanied youth up to age 24 who are unstably housed and likely to continue in that state.

The last category concerns people who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or other dangerous, life threatening situations related to violence who have no other residence or lack resources and/ or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.

The Northeast Ohio Coaltion for the Homeless website lists statistics that stated the estimated number of homeless people in Cleveland for 2009 was 20,922.

According to the National Coaltion for Homelessness, the number of homeless people nationally in 2011 was 636,017.

“We had a couple of people who went through the homeless system and enrolled at Cleveland State to try to get a college education to help them out of their situation,” said Brian Davis, director of Community Organizing at Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

Davis also expressed that while he didn’t know any students currently who were homeless at Cleveland State, he did say that there was a class about homelessness at Cuyahoga County Community College where he has spoken before and known there were some homeless students that attended Tri-C.

Lancaster is a History major minoring in Women’s Studies and Social Work. She grew up in Wisconsin, lived in San Jose for a while and came to Ohio to work for Habitat for Humanity as part of a scholarship at Baldwin Wallace College.

She transferred to Cleveland State after attending BW for a year. She worked in retail and lived in an apartment in North Olmsted with her girlfriend.

She lost her job in March of 2012 and ended up leaving her girlfriend due to domestic violence. She found herself at a homeless shelter in North Olmsted.

“I remember calling 911 and asked someone to take me to another shelter because of a violent altercation between others, and they said they don’t do that,” Lancaster said. “I felt lost.”

Since the start of the research for this story, Lancaster has found an apartment and is slowly working to get back on her feet. Lancaster’s struggle with being homeless lasted 10 months.

“A year ago is when it all fell apart,” she said. “I came to school every morning, and I didn’t know where I would be sleeping that night.”

Lancaster has not only been a victim of domestic violence but was sexually assaulted at a rapid station. She has also been assaulted with a metal pipe, had rocks thrown at her, kicked in the head and has even been hit by a car.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, advocates and shelter workers across the country have received news reports of homeless men, women and children being attacked and even killed. The prevalence of hate crimes and violence against homeless people has risen, as well as negative stereotypes reinforced by the media and intolerant people.

“I have been an advocate for people who are victims of violent crimes for almost 20 years,” Lancaster said. “I’ve never been a victim before, and it’s really different. Up until this I have never been to a food bank.”

Lancaster turned to the Maryjoyce Green Women’s Center, the counseling center, the Office of Disability Services and the Veterans Student Success office for help.

“I found my base in the counseling center, Women’s Center and Disability Services,” she said. “They have built something for me to stand on.”

The Women’s Center reaches out to students and is a place where they can go and seek help and get connected with people and resources they need. The Cleveland Food Bank also comes to Cleveland State to assist students. The Women’s Center assisted Lancaster in getting food stamps.

Lancaster also spoke about how students sometimes are financially stretched when it comes to food.

“You will see people that look just like you and me in the back room of the Women’s Center eating SpaghettiOs and Uncle Ben’s,” Lancaster said.

Jillian Keller, coordinator of the Women’s Center, explained that often the students that come in with the problem of homelessness are borderline homeless, not completely without a home or in optimal living conditions.

She explained that some students may be victims of domestic violence or just having a bit of financial strain, even coping with losing their job. The first step in assisting students who come in is to ask questions and get a sense of the big picture, then proceed from there based on the students needs.

“We speak about the whole financial picture and give them options to help them and avoid losing housing that they have to come up with,” Keller said.

Keller estimated that in the current fall academic year, the Women’s Center will see eight to 10 students for homelessness.

“As soon as they think there’s a possibility they might become homeless, either because of finances or because living situation, start looking for resources,” Keller advised.
Lancaster explained that she knew others who were in a similar situation, but none of them wanted to speak.

Keller also expressed knowledge of students and offered to see if they would talk, but none came forward.

“Homelessness is terrifying, so people often don’t want others to know,” Keller explained.
“Most people we deal with have a family member or friend that can help, but they don’t want them to know.”

“I don’t trust people.” Lancaster said.

College students living in the tough economy often have more stresses than just passing their classes.

“We are a new type of homeless person, sleeping on the fourth floor of the library behind a partion, showering in the Rec Center,” Lancaster said.

An NPR broadcast stated that many college students and their families face rising tuition costs and a tough economy which raises new challenges, leaving students financially stressed and forces them to choose between paying their bills or eating and often homelessness.

According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, there's a definite increase in the number of homeless students nationwide.

“Think about what not eating does to someone’s learning potential,” said Lancaster, who does a lot of her studying on the bus rides in during her day. “Think about how many of your classmates in your classes go to bed hungry.”

Lancaster felt that the experience disconnected her because she could remember five years ago when she paid for her tuition up front with a personal check.

While the new apartments are coming up on campus, it makes Lancaster a little angry at the university. She feels that if they want students to live on campus, why not work out a way to help the struggling students like her who need a place to live? After all, they have a child care center on campus for working parents.

“Cleveland State students really do fight for their education, and the higher administration are aware of students’ struggles,” Keller said.

Lancaster wants all students who are homeless or have experienced homelessness to know they are not alone and that they should reach out for help. She will continue to help others with her experiences.

Homelessness is a fight that this Cleveland State Viking won.