The invisible ones
NOT ALL U OF M STUDENTS HAVE A PLACE TO CALL HOME. HERE’S HOW GENEROUS AND CREATIVE PEOPLE ARE CONFRONTING A HIDDEN PROBLEM—BOTH ON CAMPUS AND IN THE COMMUNITY
Sarah Gustafson-Dombeck hears the stories: The young man found sleeping in a car parked in the Gopher lot on the East Bank of the Twin Cities campus. The girl who’s been crashing on a friend’s couch after her parents learned of her sexual identity and told her not to come home again. The student who was assaulted by her roommate and is afraid to go back to their apartment.
As behavioral consultation team coordinator for the U of M’s Care Program, Gustafson-Dombeck gets a close-up view of what homelessness and housing insecurity look like on a college campus. “It’s a hidden issue,” she says. “People don’t talk about it because there’s a lot of shame and stigma attached to it.”
The fact that some students lack stable housing captured public attention as the COVID-19 crisis forced colleges around the country to close dorms, leaving some students without a place to live. The University of Minnesota kept a few of its residence halls open for students who had no other options after classes moved online in March.
University staff began looking into housing instability on the Twin Cities campus in 2017. That year, Boynton Health brought together a group that included representatives from the Care Program to try to understand the extent of the problem and how to help students who are affected.
High housing costs
Average cost to rent a bed in a privately owned apartment complex near campus:
$1,134 a month
Minimum wage on theTwin Cities campus:
$10 per hour
U of M Housing and Residential Life, Office of Human Resources
In April 2019, the Office of Undergraduate Education added questions about housing to an annual survey on the student experience. Based on the responses, an estimated 150 U of M Twin Cities undergraduates experienced homelessness—defined as spending one or more nights in a shelter, car, public space, or structure not meant as living space—that year. A similar survey of graduate students by the Office of Institutional Research estimated about 50 had been homeless during the same period.
Perhaps more alarming, 43 percent of the 6,718 undergraduates and 31 percent of 3,769 graduate students who responded said they worry about their ability to pay for housing. “We don’t realize how much some students are struggling,” says Mikaela Robertson, a health promotion specialist at Boynton.
Robertson has been working to bring attention to the issue. “There’s a need to share the stories of these students,” she says. “Shelters for homeless community members are not appropriate for students. They’re not conducive to studying, and they’re not geared toward students who just need housing and not other services.”
She is working with the Office for Student Affairs and others on the Twin Cities campus to explore emergency housing options.
Private gifts are helping in other ways. Meet some U of M donors who are helping students at risk as well as those who are benefiting and those who are coming up with creative ways to alleviate homelessness both on campus and in the community.
If there’s a word that characterizes Chris Cuellar’s youth, it’s instability. He grew up poor. His mother’s alcoholism threw the family into turmoil. His brother moved out. His sister was told to leave. Cuellar, then an Anoka High School senior, who was also taking classes at Anoka Ramsey Community College, became her next target.
At first, she kicked him out on weekends. “Because she wasn’t very involved in my life, I decided not to invite her to my graduation,” he recalls. “Just as I was getting ready to walk down the aisle, she sent me a message saying I wasn’t welcome back in the house.”
Cuellar, ’19 B.S., lived out of his car during that time. His then-girlfriend’s mother eventually took him in. He went on to earn a two-year degree before enrolling in the University of Minnesota to study psychology.
Cuellar worked one, sometimes two, jobs to supplement the grants, scholarships, and financial aid that helped pay tuition. But he worried about finances and struggled to keep up with school and come to terms with the fallout from his childhood. “One of the hardest things for me to do was ask for and accept help,” he says. “I don’t like to show I’m weak or struggling.”
Not just about shelter
Students who have been homeless or had insecure housing reported:
• Less time to study
• Lower GPAs
• Less satisfaction with their experience on campus
U of M Office of Undergraduate Education
He has since met other students who’ve faced homelessness and shared similar sentiments. “When these situations arise, people tend to isolate themselves. I was a prime example of that.”
In the fall of 2019, Cuellar was chosen as the first recipient of the A Place to Call Home Scholarship, which supports U of M students who’ve experienced homelessness. “To know I was recognized for trying to achieve something when the odds weren’t in my favor meant a lot,” he says.
Cuellar now works as a personal care attendant, a job he held as an undergraduate, and a case manager for people with physical and mental disabilities. An accomplished guitarist, he wants to become a physician’s assistant and use music in his work.
Susan Allison-Hatch, ’70 B.A., has walked alongside people experiencing homelessness for nearly 20 years. As an Episcopal priest, she served meals to them in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, ministered to them in Albuquerque, and got to know them through a studio art program run by Health Care for the Homeless.
“I was drawn to serving people who were overlooked and avoided,” she says. “And what struck me was the courage and the kindness and the dignity of people who live on the streets.”
During that time, Allison-Hatch, who is now retired, met a boy in Albuquerque whose mother had fled an abusive spouse and was moving from place to place.
“His eyes were so bright and he was so engaged in the world,” she recalls. She also remembers a fourth-grade girl whose family was staying in a shelter. “She talked about how much she loved to read. Her determination to learn inspires me to this day,” Allison-Hatch says.
In case of emergency
In March, the University of Minnesota established an emergency fund for financially insecure students throughout the system in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The new donor-supported University of Minnesota Student Emergency Fund helps students in need with housing, food, tuition, mental health services, and transportation. Nearly 80 students received assistance during the first month.
Although some colleges and system campuses already had emergency funds for students, a number have created new ones, funded by donors, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both inspired her to do something for young people experiencing homelessness. “I envision young men and women having their lives changed because they can go to the University of Minnesota and find a different path,” she says.
In 2018, she established the A Place to Call Home Scholarship at the U. “My hope is that this scholarship provides people who have lived on the streets the opportunity to build on their courage and kindness and dignity in developing the skills that will enable them to thrive in the world,” she says.
But that’s not her only goal. “Just as important is cultivating a deep sense that ‘I am somebody,’” she says. “That sense of somebodyness is often taken away from people who experience homelessness.”
With safe and affordable housing increasingly hard to find in Duluth, Luke Nichols, ’18 M.L.A., thinks he has a solution: tiny homes.
In the fall of 2017, Nichols was working with Design Duluth Studio, a program of the U of M’s College of Design that finds solutions to the city’s challenges. “I wanted to explore a housing model that would treat the social and environmental aspects of housing equally,” he says.
As part of a capstone project, he developed a video and a 3-D prototype of a tiny home community. He called it the Cabin Cooperative.
Nichols’ interest in affordable housing stems from his own experience. At times, he and his mother slept in their car. They were driven from apartments by eviction. They were always behind on rent. Even after his freshman year at the U of M, Nichols spent the summer at a shelter for homeless youth. “I always had to have a plan B,” he says.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Nichols decided to pursue a master’s in landscape architecture. “I found myself looking at the spaces between buildings. I wondered how those spaces could be made to support people,” says Nichols, who received the Jo Tushie Endowed Fellowship in Landscape Architecture and other awards.
Gift from the Graduate
Last fall, the U's Office for Student Affairs worked with the Graduate Hotel on the Twin Cities campus to help students in the midst of a housing crisis.
The hotel gave the University 50 free nights at the beginning of the fall semester. By early March, 48 had been used. The Graduate has since brought the number of available nights back up to 50.
The Cabin Cooperative garnered widespread interest in Duluth. An associate designer with Travis Van Liere Studio, a Minneapolis-based landscape architecture practice, Nichols recently learned that his entry, now called Cabin Collective LLC, was accepted in the Rebuild Duluth program. He was awarded a plot of land to build the first three-dwelling community.
At age 16, Shane Morris packed his belongings into a paper-route bag and left his parents’ house forever. Living without shelter seemed preferable to navigating the violence, arguments, and addiction at home. Morris slept in the woods at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, Minnesota, and sometimes spent the night with friends. He continued to attend classes and run cross country at Osseo Senior High.
Rather than seek help from social service agencies or nonprofits that might ask a lot of questions, he felt it was simply easier to hide. Only a handful of people knew he was homeless. “Homelessness isn’t what you think it is,” Morris, now 46, says. “The people impacted by it aren’t necessarily standing on street corners asking for money.”
Morris managed to graduate from high school, join the Army and ROTC, and earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from the U of M before receiving an M.B.A. from the University of Iowa and a master’s in marketing from Indiana University.
Today, he has a successful career in sales and marketing with medical device maker Abbott Vascular. But he hasn’t forgotten the shame and stigma that came with being homeless: “I got to the point where I was tired of explaining things to people,” he says. Only recently has he begun to talk more openly about his past.
The Minnesota Student Association worked with the Minneapolis City Council to expand an affordable housing policy to students.
A zoning ordinance that took effect January 1 requires private developers to make 8 percent of bedrooms in new complexes near campus with 20 or more units available at a rate affordable to those making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income (about $42,000).
Student-led advocacy efforts expanded eligibility to those receiving federal Pell Grants—need-based grants for low-income undergraduate students.
Morris also has volunteered with nonprofit organizations that serve homeless teens in the greater Des Moines area. He served as a mentor, helping them draft resumes and even teaching one to drive a car.
Recently, he and his wife made a gift in their will to support scholarships for President’s Emerging Scholars participants. The program is designed for U of M students who faced challenges that may have affected their high school ranks and test scores but have strong potential for success. “Those students seem most at risk for homelessness,” he says. “Their stories are aligned with my experience.”
The phrase “at home” is more than a description of one’s location. It implies comfort, ease, and a sense of belonging. In fact, making displaced people feel “at home” is essential to solving the problem of homelessness, says Gabrielle Clowdus, a research fellow with the U’s Minnesota Design Center, which benefits from donor gifts.
“We don’t just need to build housing,” she says. “We need to build communities where housed and unhoused people live together.”
Three years ago, Clowdus—who received philanthropic support from the College of Design’s Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel—was hired by the center to work on a project focused on mental health and homelessness. Her research led her to believe that the solution to homelessness required more than just putting a roof over people’s heads. Encouraged by the center’s director and Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design Thomas Fisher to develop her idea, she cofounded Settled, a nonprofit with a unique approach to addressing homelessness: mobile tiny houses.
Settled is working with religious communities, which are exempted by federal law from many local zoning laws related to land they own. Several congregations are interested in her proposal, and Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake has agreed to host the first tiny-house village. Clowdus also wonders whether ordinances could be changed to allow tiny houses on other sites—maybe even the U of M campus?
Settled will use private funding to construct high-quality 100-square-foot homes that sit on trailers. Built by volunteers at $20,000 each, the homes will include a hot plate, refrigerator, sink, toilet, and extra-long twin bed. When parked in a church parking lot, the structure can be hooked up to electrical power.
What’s more, Settled is connecting homeless people with a community. Parishioners volunteer to mentor and work with residents, providing otherwise-isolated residents with an opportunity to interact with people in stable housing.
“How do we invite people into something so they feel wholly known and loved?” she says. “How do we give them a sense of their place and purpose in the community?”