Formerly homeless student’s story reveals ‘hidden group’ on college campuses
By Rebecca Panico | Published May 5, 2017
Carlos Palacios-Avila didn’t want to use the small food pantry Dr. Norma Bowe kept in Hennings Hall room 413 when she told him about it, but eventually he did.
“I didn’t want the help,” said Palacios-Avila, a junior psychology major who was a student in Dr. Bowe’s community health class last semester. “I’m that type of guy. I’d rather do it on my own. I appreciate it, but it’s embarrassing. It felt like mooching, like I owe somebody.”
Palacios-Avila, 21, became homeless while he attended the County College of Morris (CCM) about three years ago after his bid for an apartment fell through. He started couch surfing during his first semester and would sleep on park benches in Dover whenever he couldn’t find a place to stay.
His situation is not unique.
A study released in March by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Association of Community College Trustees found that 14 percent of community college students were homeless and one-third went hungry. The study surveyed over 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in the U.S.
Things began to turn around for Palacios-Avila once he was able to dorm at Kean University in 2014. Today, he lives with a friend’s father and commutes to Kean, he said.
But getting to this point was no easy task.
THE PATH TO HOMELESSNESS
When he first started couch surfing, he used what money he had from a previous job at a Toys ‘R Us warehouse to buy a gym membership. He’d use the showers there when he couldn’t wash up at friend’s house.
It’s just one of the ways he kept his difficult situation discreet. Suffering in silence makes it difficult for professors to know just how many of their students struggle with hunger or homelessness.
Dr. Frances Stavola Daly, a Kean professor and coordinator for the recreation administration program, said she knows about four students experiencing homelessness or lack of food this year alone.
“You don’t know because the students cover it very well,” said Dr. Daly. “A conversation is triggered by not doing well in class, the student looking very tired, coming and falling asleep in class. And then you begin to realize that there is a bigger picture.”
“It’s a hidden group,” she added.
Palacios-Avila had a rough relationship with his father who lived in Texas, he said. At 14, he moved in with his older brother who was 23 at the time and lived in New Jersey. His living situation changed at 18 when his brother married and her son from Brazil needed to move in.
“He came back and there weren’t enough rooms, so I had to leave. She’s a nice woman,” Palacios-Avila said, referring to his brother’s wife. “I don’t want to make it seem like she was the rudest person in the world. She had to pick her son.”
Palacios-Avila thought he’d be alright since he applied for a room on Craigslist, but it fell through. That’s when he started couch surfing. He was straight out of high school.
His grades were suffering at CCM during this time. But he didn’t want to reach out for help because he felt embarrassed. “You feel worthless,” he said of his experience.
That’s when an old high school friend’s father, Bill Miller, took him under his wing. Miller’s home in Boonton was one of the places he’d go to while couch surfing. He would eventually help Palacios-Avila enroll at Kean after spending one semester at CCM.
Homelessness is prevalent at four-year universities like Kean too. A 2016 study from The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness found that seven percent of students at four-year schools experienced homelessness. The study surveyed about 1,800 students at two and four-year schools, including Rutgers University.
For Palacios-Avila, being able to afford Kean was difficult too. A student who is under 24-years-old needs to provide their parent’s financial records to complete a FAFSA form. Unable to do so, Palacios-Avila had to provide his mother’s death certificate, prove that his father gave custody to his brother, that he was no longer living with his brother and that he had no lease.
Even with state and federal aid, Palacios- Avila struggled to afford food. He was unable to get housing assistance for the times he wasn’t dorming on campus during summer and winter break, nor could he get food stamps. State law makes it difficult to receive assistance like Section 8 if a student is enrolled at college, is unmarried or does not have a dependent child.
Palacios-Avila would stay at Miller’s house in between semesters. Today, he lives with Miller during the semester and commutes to Kean.
“It made me who I am,” he said, referring to his past. “The reason I’m comfortable sharing it now is ‘cause if you neglect who you are in the past, then you neglect who you are now.”
RESOURCES THAT COULD HELP
Food pantries are starting to sprout up on other campuses around the nation. The administration at Montclair State University opened a food pantry last year after hearing from students who said they didn’t have enough money for food.
At Kean, Dr. Bowe said about 15 students have used the food pantry in Hennings this year. About three or four are regulars who stock up on an almost weekly basis, but they only take what they need, she said.
The small food pantry — which used to be an office for a professor — was created as an extension of Dr. Bowe’s charitable organization, Be the Change. The group is notable for several projects, including making peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless near Newark Penn Station each week.
“I was like, ‘Let’s see if we can’t use this office for something other than peanut butter and jelly,’” she said. “So now we have the cereal, the dry fruit, canned goods. Y’know staples that stay forever but can make a meal.”
Dr. Bowe hopes that her food pantry can grow, but would like to keep it a bit discreet so students don’t have to feel embarrassed about using it. The food in the pantry comes from donations.
Any faculty member on the fourth floor can open the office for a student, or they can see Dr. Bowe confidentially in Hennings room 411.
Meanwhile, Kean University’s Behavioral Intervention Team (KUBIT) provides consultation, education and support to faculty, staff and administrators in helping students who display troubling behaviors. The program connects students with resources on and off campus.
Professors are encouraged to make a referral when they notice several indicators in students, including change in hygiene or appearance, a decline in academic performance or excessive or inappropriate anger. Faculty should also refer a student when the student admits there is a problem, but doesn’t want to talk about it, according to information on Kean’s website.
Additionally, Kean’s Counseling Center offers mental health services to enrolled students for free in Downs Hall room 127. The center can be reached at (908) 737-4850.
The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness suggests that lawmakers should improve access to existing federal programs like food stamp eligibility requirements. It also suggests simplifying the FAFSA process.
The group also recommends creating campus community gardens, and food recovery programs in addition to having food pantries at universities and colleges.
Although counseling services were offered to Palacios-Avila by Kean’s financial aid advisers, he didn’t accept the help. Today, he volunteers with Be the Change and hopes to help others who face the same challenges by becoming a caseworker.
“In a way, I think it was important for me because it motivated me,” Palacios-Avila said of his homelessness experience. “It was either that or just die.”