You might envision the typical college student as a cash-strapped coed, dining on ramen noodles and spending nights dozing in the library.
But for many college students, food insecurity and the threat of homelessness go way beyond instant noodles and sleepless nights. "I'm talking about [sleeping in] abandoned buildings, cars, sleeping on the street,'" says Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and professor of higher education policy at Temple University in Philadelphia. "They already have jobs and financial aid, and can't make ends meet."
A significant number of college students are experiencing housing and food insecurity, feeling uncertain about how they'll fund basic needs. For example, nearly 57,000 students nationally identified themselves as homeless on their 2013-14 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, according to U.S. Department of Education unpublished data. Among community college students responding to a recent survey, 1 in 3 reported going hungry while enrolled in college. Half reported housing insecurity, and nearly 14 percent were homeless, according to the study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. "At community colleges, it's very clearly a big deal," Goldrick-Rab says.
If you're a student who's experiencing homelessness and food shortages, don't despair: There are on-campus and off-campus resources you can tap for extra cash, free food and other kinds of support. But you have to know where to look -- and whom to ask. Here's what to know.
[See: How to Live on $13,000 a Year.]
Reach out. First thing's first, keeping your financial situation under wraps won't get you far. "I think first and foremost, what students need to know is that they need to tell people on campus because it might not be as easy as searching for the information online," says Julie Selander, director of One Stop Student Services at the University of Minnesota--Twin Cities. The office offers a financial literacy and money management initiative for students called "Live Like a Student."
Depending on the size and administrative structure of your school, you may need to reach out to one or more of any number of offices. For example, the financial aid office, academic advisor's office, student services center, residential services or even health services centers may have resources for homeless or hungry students, or they may be able to point you in the right direction. Even the Dean of Students' office may be a good resource, especially at bigger institutions, says Tadarrayl Starke, director for the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, or CARE, at Florida State University.
Speaking up can be one of the toughest steps for homeless and hungry students, experts say. The conversation can be unpleasant, embarrassing or even frustrating, depending on the response they receive. But it's a necessary step, since many resources for homeless or hungry students aren't publicized or may be spread out among various university departments.
Head to the financial aid office. Your school's financial aid office may have a range of resources for students who need cash. Ask about an emergency loan or -- better yet -- emergency grant aid. "There may be a pool of emergency aid," Goldrick-Rab says. "I really can't promise it. A lot of places have it and don't advertise it."
You may also be able to ask for an advance on financial aid that's coming your way. "If we need to, we can cut you a check for an emergency advance of that financial aid," Selander says.
The office may be able to help you file the FAFSA if you haven't yet. Or staff can help you submit a special circumstances appeal if a financial shakeup, such as the death of a parent, job loss, divorce or disability, means that the financial aid office ought to reevaluate your aid package, Selander says. Plus, financial aid administrators may point you in the direction of state or institutional resources. For example, the state of Florida has a homeless fee exemption for qualified students, Starke says.
Ask for assistance funding food. The financial aid office may also be able to help you apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, Goldrick-Rab says. She warns that the application process can be frustrating for students since there is a 20-hour-per-week work requirement.
Your university may run an on-campus food pantry. For example, the University of Minnesota is rolling out its Nutritious U Food Pantry after piloting it in February. "We were starting to hear more and more students who didn't have the funds for healthy food," Selander says. In fact, more than 1 in 10 University of Minnesota students reported experiencing a food shortage within the previous 12 months, according to a 2015 report from the university. More than 1 in 6 of the students surveyed reported worrying that their food would run out before they could purchase more, the study found.
U of M's Nutritious U allows students to pick up healthy, fresh food in an inclusive space. Your college may organize something similar.
If your college doesn't have a food pantry, try reaching out to the community, experts say. There may be a nearby food pantry sponsored by a local church or another local organization. Again, it doesn't hurt to ask.
Be kind to yourself. Try to shake off any feelings of guilt or shame associated with homelessness and hunger in college, especially if those emotions are blocking your search for financial assistance. It can be difficult for students from all types of backgrounds to make ends meet in college. "You can easily run out of the kind of money students are getting today," Goldrick-Rab says.
But know that you'll be more likely to complete your degree and graduate without a crippling amount of student loans or credit card debt if you reach out for help.
Advocate for yourself by sharing your story, Goldrick-Rab says. For example, if you can't find the resources you need on campus, consider writing an op-ed in the student newspaper. She hopes that students "can feel empowered to know that they did not do this, this is not their moral failing." Says Goldrick-Rab: "They've been shoved into an untenable situation by a host of things."
Susannah Snider is the Personal Finance editor at U.S. News. Since 2010, she has reported on a wide range of personal finance topics, from consumer travel to college financial aid, student loans and employment. Snider previously worked as a staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. She has appeared as a personal finance expert on television, radio and in print, including on "Fox & Friends," "The Tavis Smiley Show" and Fox Business News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.