Housing insecurity, an issue that affects more than half of CUNY students, has become a more pressing concern in the graduate and undergraduate community since the onset of the pandemic. Nearly half of CUNY students – or someone in their family – reported losing a job since last March. According to a 2018 survey of nearly 22,000 CUNY students from 19 campuses, one in 10 students had already experienced homelessness before the pandemic.
In the midst of this crisis, misplaced budget priorities threaten to further reduce crucial student services, warned PSC Treasurer Sharon Persinger at a New York City Council Higher Education Committee hearing about housing insecurity among CUNY students. “Many of the programs that offer critical support to students are often the first on the budgetary cutting block,” she said at the January 14 hearing.
CUNY’s pool of advisors and mental health counselors, she explained, is already too small and underresourced, stretched to the limit. “We are concerned about the upcoming budget fight,” Persinger added. “The city can and should spend more in support services at CUNY colleges.”
COVID-19 hit CUNY students “harder than students at other colleges,” Persinger said, noting that about 60% of CUNY undergraduate students are from households that earn less than $30,000 per year. Before COVID-19, CUNY students’ situations were already financially precarious.
Housing insecurity – the inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently – was experienced by 55% of the respondents of the 2018 survey, published in March 2019. Fourteen percent have experienced homelessness – the lack of a stable place to live. Three percent self-identified as homeless.
Under these circumstances, it is crucial to facilitate simple access to resources and assistance to students, said Waleek Boone, a HEO student life specialist at Medgar Evers College.
“You don’t want to tell your story over and over and over again,” Boone said. “Students do not like to go to multiple offices seeking services and that is why they hide in the shadows. No one wants to be ridiculed or embarrassed.”
CUNY should establish a single-entry office in each of the campuses, Boone said, to reduce the stressful conditions of students and identify ways of supporting them. The offices could even assist students in navigating the shelter system, where people are often treated as “less than a human being.” “It’s a whole different story,” Boone added, when college officials intervene in shelters on behalf of students.
The pandemic provoked higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression within the CUNY community, concluded a spring 2020 CUNY Graduate School of Public Health report. “Many faced food insecurity or worried about paying rent,” it read. “And not surprisingly, many students had trouble with schoolwork.”
Helen Frank, a HEO college counselor at City Tech, agreed on facilitating students’ access to resources. “Students are very reluctant to identify themselves as homeless,” she said. Frank added that single mothers, immigrants and LGBTQ undergraduates are the most acutely affected by homelessness.
For students, additional support and simple ways to get access to it are key during this time of the health and economic crises. “It is no secret that students are falling through the cracks,” said Juvanie Piquant, chairperson of CUNY’s University Student Senate, “because of the lack of support.”