February 5, 2014 Kennesaw - Samuel Robinson, who is a homeless student, studies at the library where he spends most of his time in Kennesaw State University campus on Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Samuel Robinson is a homeless KSU student who is currently paying off student fees to be reinstated into the university. He had been homeless for a long time and couch surfing. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Help for Georgia’s homeless college students

Javon Butts had his routine worked out pretty well.

Classes at 8 a.m. most days, finish up around noon, then on to work. His recent life as a student at Kennesaw State University was far from perfect, but it was temporarily manageable. And then his car’s transmission failed.

The vehicle that left him stranded wasn’t just his transportation: it was his home.

He’s not alone, said Marcy Stidum, coordinator of KSU’s CARE center that helps homeless students. Most every college in the nation has students like Javon Butts. They attend classes each day, work on assignments and blend in. But when other students retreat to dorm rooms or apartments for the night, they turn to their cars, campus buildings and the couches or floors of friends.

To tackle the problem, Georgia education and child advocacy officials are creating an outreach program to help homeless and former foster youths at each state campus. For now, KSU is the only Georgia college with a staff person dedicated to help homeless students.

“People say these students aren’t homeless, they are in college,” said Stidum. “Grants and loans pay for tuition, but it’s the other things like housing that they can’t afford. “They are not the stereotypical homeless. These are students with clothes on their backs, with an iPad, living in their car and starving.”

Stidum came to KSU to work in the school’s mental health program, but a year into that job she received a call about a homeless student. After helping almost a dozen homeless students that semester, she realized it was a problem. Since fall 2011, KSU’s CARE center has helped 61 homeless students, including Butts.

Butts, a sophomore finance major from Gainesville, came to KSU in August 2012 after transferring from a South Carolina college. A bad experience there and a strained relationship with his family left him looking for a fresh start.

At that time Butts, 20, settled into college life and a university dorm, and spent his time playing paintball. In fall 2013, he was using his student loan money to pay his monthly student housing bill.

But before he paid the third month’s rent, his mother and sister needed help paying their bills, so Butts gave them his rent money. He was unable to recoup the money, got further and further behind on his financial obligations and was eventually evicted.

“I wanted to look out for them,” he said. “But in reality you have to look out for yourself.”

During the 2012-2013 academic year, more than 58,150 college applicants nationwide identified themselves on federal financial forms as homeless. That was an increase from the previous year’s 53,705, according to information obtained by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. That figure is likely understated because some students living on friends’ couches, for example, don’t consider themselves homeless, and some others are too embarrassed to identify themselves that way, said Barbara Duffield, NAEHCY’s executive director.

Last year the national group began keeping geographical statistics on the homeless students who consulted it for help. NAEHCY received 260 requests for assistance that year, and calls from Georgia outnumbered all other states.

“That lets me know that the state (department of education) is working with NAEHCY and letting kids now about this, but it also lets me know that gaps still exist for these students,” said Cyekeia Lee, NAEHCY’s national higher education liaison for homeless youth.

Under Georgia’s new program, each college would have staff like KSU’s Stidum, assigned to identify and provide support for those students.

These days Butts, who wants to be a financial analyst, keeps pretty much to himself. The less other students know about his situation the better. He has a hotel room but can’t afford it for long. With Stidum’s help from KSU, he is looking for a cheaper off-campus apartment until he has saved up enough from his job and student loan to move on campus in the fall.

The model for the state’s new effort is similar to approaches in other states where campus coaches help homeless students navigate the college process, but also teach life skills like paying bills. On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is pushing a bill that would help homeless students by streamlining the financial aid process, reducing paperwork and establishing a point of contact at each college to help them along the way.

That type of help is benefitting students like Samuel Robinson, 38, who has been homeless more than a year.

He didn’t start out that way. After graduating from high school in the bottom of his class, Robinson worked menial jobs for awhile before getting an associate’s degree in general studies and business. He left small-town Georgia for better opportunities in the Atlanta area, but again found menial employment. He enrolled in KSU in 2010, and was slowly working his way through school when he lost his job two years later.

Stidum is helping Robinson work out a budget to pay off outstanding college fees in time to re-enroll for the summer semester. He is still living with friends, but he now has a job to pay for his living expenses there.

Like Butts, Robinson never told his family about his struggle.

“I don’t want pity,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to be an adult and be homeless.”

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