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May 11, 2021
Ithaca, NY | 40°F

Opinion

Commentary: Student homelessness from a firsthand experience

Student homelessness has been a national issue since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring. In fact, almost 15% of students at four-year institutions were experiencing homelessness due to the pandemic. This national issue is one that I’d never have thought would hit so close to home. 

Prior to the start of my homelessness, I led a privileged life attending my private college in Ithaca, New York. However, what most people didn’t realize was that I’m the only child of a single-parent home. I had worked tirelessly to afford the opportunity to attend school — I earned scholarships, fundraised and worked summer jobs. Unfortunately, just as I was finding my place in the world, I also found myself homeless and without any real place at all.

Being homeless in Rochester, New York is not a life skill one wants to have experienced. I’ve been to four shelters with their different rules, tedious chores, early curfews, and lack of heat, blankets and pillows. Not to mention, the residents who are drugaddicted and smoking together in the shelter’s only bathroom made it difficult to feel safe in an already unstable environment.

The first shelter I stayed in was on the east side of downtown Rochester. My days were spent lounging in the living room as I remotely fulfilled my 18-credit course load while completing 10 apartment searches every five days. The process included calling landlords and scheduling a time to see the apartment, and/or filling out 20–50-page applications. Each week was also met with a scavenger hunt of requirements such as three days notice to complete a psychological evaluation and only a few hours notice to fax copies of all my bank statements. These tasks, which I was required to complete to stay in shelters, were extremely draining to my mental and physical health.

The worst shelter was Women’s Place on Hobart Street (which was not exclusively for women). I wish I could take back some of those cold nights having random men walk into my room, with the door that doesn’t lock, and them just laying down next to me in my bed. Or the nights that I was last in line for a room, so I didn’t get any bedding and shivered under my coat all night. One evening, an employee threatened to kick me out if I didn’t pleasure him. I chose to hold my morals close, then spent the night outside.

My experience being homeless is one that I hope few other students share. I have seen the world from a unique point of view in these past months. There are so many problems that the average person is oblivious to that I experienced firsthand, such as the failings of this country’s medical and social systems, and I want to be part of the solution. Having had a strenuous year, and despite the countless challenges I had to navigate, I never considered taking a leave from school due to my commitment to my education. These difficult experiences have only increased my compassion for others and opened my eyes to the ways in which we as individuals and as a society can better assist those in need.