By Armenta E. Hinton, Ph.D., vice president of inclusion, diversity and belonging and Title IX coordinator for HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, and Vicki Van Hise, MSW, executive director of student access services for HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College
Published by PennLive, Dec. 7, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many preexisting vulnerabilities within our communities. One of the unfortunate realities in our area is that college students are hungry. While they are hungry for learning and a better future, the pandemic has exposed that they are starving from a lack of nutritious foods. During national Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, we at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, recognize the interlocking challenges of hunger and homelessness and the disruption they cause to students’ wellbeing and academic success.
Statistically, we know that prior to the pandemic, 39% of college students experienced food insecurity and 46% experienced housing insecurity. The realities of food and housing insecurity are different from what is sometimes depicted in the media. Food insecurity can look like skipping meals, cutting portions, food running out before payday or not eating for a day or more due to insufficient supply or funds. Housing insecurity includes the inability to pay full rent or utilities, moving in with others (sometimes called “sofa surfing”) or moving out to escape a toxic homelife. Additionally, individuals may be forced to live in hotel rooms by the day or week due to difficulties with security deposits, credit ratings and prior criminal records. In some desperate circumstances, homeless students may live in their car, which creates a downward spiral into deeper financial despair. When challenged with meeting basic needs of food, shelter and safety, mental health suffers, creating complex, intersecting problems that often lead to students failing classes and withdrawing from college.
At HACC, we know that our students experience these serious obstacles. In the midst of the pandemic, the College proudly established the Consultation, Advocacy, Referrals and Empowerment (CARE) Center as a comprehensive stop where students can go for assistance with nonacademic challenges. This is a free resource available to all current HACC students. Students connect with CARE coordinators, who assist with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications, connect to local food pantries and provide short-term assistance until benefits start. Addressing housing insecurity is far more challenging. HACC’s CARE coordinators refer students to shelters, help locate safe, temporary housing and guide students to community resources.
Caring HACC employees refer many students who express that they are overwhelmed and stressed. During the intake process, CARE coordinators assess student concerns while building rapport. In moments of support and trust, students often begin disclosing details around their food and housing insecurities. This provides an opening for CARE coordinators to educate and refer students to counseling and other resources.
One student shared the significance of receiving this level of support, saying, “My nine year old son and I are considered homeless and stay in a hotel room and finances are super tight right now. This [grocery] e-gift card would help us tremendously with food as we only receive $61 a month in SNAP benefits due to my [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] benefits amount but they don’t take into consideration how expensive it is to stay in a hotel. This is a HUGE blessing and much appreciated!! Thanks so much in advance!”
After the Emancipation Proclamation, there was a sense of urgency and need to educate diverse citizens, as education was the pathway to liberation and a better life. This thinking is rooted in the American dream and progress. Today, education – especially the accessible options offered at community colleges like HACC – continues to lift individuals out of poverty. The powerful work of CARE coordinators and others meets basic needs while keeping students engaged in their academic pursuits. Education combined with caring for the whole student are crucial interventions that work to disrupt the cycle of poverty.