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An aerial shot of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

Fort Lewis College is working to support its students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity with a rapid rehousing program, launched in 2022.

KaraGrubis/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Higher education institutions around the country are grappling with rising costs of living and how that can impact student enrollment and retention. A rising number of colleges lack on-campus facilities to house students, which puts a strain on students to find their own affordable housing solutions.

In the 2023 Student Well-being Institutional Support Survey (SWISS), 64 percent of students surveyed, representing 25 institutions, agreed there were adequate housing options on campus. Meanwhile, a 2023 analysis by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which looked at the National Center for Education Statistics’ first basic needs survey, conducted in March 2020, found 8 percent of undergraduates and 4.6 percent of graduate students reporting experiencing homelessness in the previous 30 days.

A new rapid rehousing program at Fort Lewis College places students in temporary accommodations within 24 hours and provides one-on-one guidance for students facing housing insecurity to locate stable housing, drawing on nonprofit and community partnerships. To date, the program has seen 85 percent of participants exit to permanent or stable housing.

A National Housing Challenge 

Different state legislatures have put pressure on colleges and universities to accommodate students with creative solutions. California colleges are required to have a basic needs coordinator who provides housing support, and Illinois institutions are required to house students who need assistance over academic breaks.

Some nonprofit organizations have stepped up to bridge the gap, and other colleges have worked with their local governments to fund short-term housing assistance placement programs.

What’s the need: The Colorado college opened its basic needs center, called the Grub Hub, in 2010, initially addressing food insecurity and expanding operations with its inaugural basic needs coordinator, Stella Zhu, in February 2022.

Fort Lewis participated in the Hope Center’s Basic Needs Survey for the first time in 2019 and found 45 percent of students had been housing insecure in the past year (unable to pay for rent or utilities, moving three or more times, moving in with other people, or had an account default, among other factors).

Just under 30 percent of surveyed students at Fort Lewis had been homeless (living in a place not meant for human habitation, had lost a nighttime residence or housed unstably with children). Nationally, 48 percent of students at four-year institutions had experienced housing insecurity that same year, and 14 percent of four-year students were homeless.

“That was shocking to me,” Zhu says. “Three years had passed, but those numbers were alarming.”

Zhu made housing her first priority, establishing the rapid rehousing program in March 2022.

How it works: The program has three tiers: housing identification, rent and move-in assistance, and case management.

Students facing homelessness or in emergency situations can reach out to Zhu and be placed in temporary accommodations within 24 hours, either a shelter with multiple bunks or a hotel or motel room, depending on student preference and availability.

For rent and move-in assistance, Grub Hub manages funds on a case-by-case basis, Zhu explains, with a set “soft limit” for how much financial assistance students can get. The average student requests $1,596.

The college partners with a local nonprofit, Manna Soup Kitchen, to distribute funds so any rental assistance doesn’t detract from their financial aid offerings immediately. The money will be reflected in a student’s FAFSA, but Zhu partners with students to plan ahead for that change, she explains.

As students receive housing assistance, Zhu holds weekly meetings with them to evaluate their situation and offer practical counseling. Sometimes it’s developing a plan for finding permanent housing, and at other times it’s evaluating the practicality of remaining enrolled.

Scaling up: The biggest challenge has been funding and scarcity of housing opportunities. The Colorado Housing and Finance Authority Direct Effect Award gave Fort Lewis an additional $15,000 for emergency housing, but the average monthly rent in Durango for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,800, so it can be a challenge to support students trying to scrape through a single four-month semester.

Durango residents, many of whom are retired folks snowbirding in a ski town, have also opened their homes to Fort Lewis students needing a place to sleep. Zhu matches students by hand, identifying who might be a good fit for hosts. Some residents ask students to sign a lease and pay rent, but others do it free of charge and restrictions.

In the future, the college is considering working with Realtors to establish a home-sharing program for seasonal availability.

Help wanted: Zhu is the sole full-time staff member, but she has 16 student employees and two interns, one of whom is dedicated to housing programs and is being trained on case management. The team will have as many as 50 active housing cases at one time but averages 30.

Colorado basic needs coordinators have started to meet formally to discuss best practices and share resources to support learners, led by the state’s department of education, Zhu says. The first meeting took place in August, and future meetings will establish a vision and advocacy priorities (like streamlining ways for college students to receive SNAP benefits).

The impact: A spring 2023 survey conducted by Fort Lewis College found 18 percent of students experienced homelessness, a dramatic drop from the 2019 results, which Zhu says could be attributed to the program as well as other factors. “It’s a sign that things are changing,” she adds.

The survey also found 87 percent of students who are housing insecure or unhoused knew about Zhu, and 97 percent of the student population was aware of Grub Hub.

During the first year, 108 students received assistance from the program. To date, 100 percent of students have been housed within 24 hours, 97 percent of students spent less than two months in temporary accommodations (with the average being 20 days) and 85 percent of students have found stable housing.

Looking ahead, Zhu plans to implement one-year checkups with students who have used the rehousing program and measure graduation rates among program participants against national data.

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