Living out of her car: Student reflects on challenges of being homeless in college

On a snowy February morning, Ann visited the storage unit she had rented a year prior to house her belongings while she was sleeping in her car and at friends’ houses – while she was homeless.

There was a lot of snow on the ground that day, but warm sun filtered in through the windshield of the car she now drove, a silver Toyota she inherited from her grandfather, as she pulled into the parking lot of the industrial storage complex. She parked and looked out at the black wrought iron gate and the head office.

Ann, now a senior at FSU, drove to the storage unit in Milford about every three weeks when she was homeless to rotate the items she left in storage and the belongings she kept in the back seat of her car at the time, a Jeep Cherokee.

Ann loved her Jeep, but had a difficult time affording the monthly payments while she was homeless. Nevertheless, during those months, from December 2013 to March 2014, it was the one place she could rely on to sleep if other plans, such as friends’ apartments or dorm rooms, fell through.

Ann (not her real name) was one of many homeless people in America. According to The National Coalition for the Homeless website, 610,042 individuals were found to be homeless on a single night in January 2013 in the U.S., and about one third of those people were under the age of 24.

The number of homeless college students is difficult to calculate, as is the number of all homeless people, because many don’t identify themselves as homeless because they want to avoid the stigma or, in some cases, may not consider themselves homeless if they are staying with friends the way Ann would often do.

During the months she was homeless, Ann had also become an expert on where she could park her Jeep so she wouldn’t be woken up by police officers, namely the parking lots of places which are open 24/7, or where no one would notice her car, such as the lot of La Cantina, which was under construction last winter. She said the parking garages at the Natick Mall and side streets on campus were usually good places to park and sleep without being noticed.

Ann was woken up by police officers knocking on her window some of the first nights she slept in her car, because it’s illegal to sleep in a car in public parking lots. She said she didn’t explain to the officers why she was there, but just offered an excuse and drove somewhere else.

“It always freaks you out when somebody’s banging on your window. ‘Ah! Hello! Sleeping? I must have fallen asleep. I’m just waiting for somebody,’” she said.

On a particularly cold winter morning last year, Ann woke up as the sun came through her windshield. Waking up with the sun was one of the few aspects she actually enjoyed about sleeping in her car – but on this winter morning, the early sun wasn’t strong enough against the lingering night chill.

Her Jeep was encased in a thin layer of ice. She flexed her fingers. Numb. She stretched her stiff legs as much as she could in the cramped space of the driver’s seat, where she slept because the back seat was filled with the belongings she hadn’t left in storage. Her feet were numb, too.

She had gone to sleep wearing layers of clothes, including a sweatshirt and jacket, to keep warm. “It was never like I could be really comfortable. You got used to it. Once you’re tired enough, you’re going to go to sleep.”

Ann had parked her car on a side road near campus, so with stiff movements, she got out of her car and hurried to the gym locker room, where she often took showers, and where she kept some of her belongings in multiple lockers.

She turned on the water, shivering while she stepped under the hot stream, waiting for the chill to dissipate.

“I love working out. I love lifting. So I know what it feels like to have sore, tight muscles. This was not like that feeling at all. It was like you’ve been outside for way too long, and your body on the inside was as cold as it was on the outside.”

She stood under the water until she could feel her fingers again. “It’s so good to feel your fingers,” she thought to herself, grateful for the luxury of warmth.

When she got out of the shower, her skin was bright red, burnt from the scalding water.

She thought to herself, “I can’t do this,” but also realized that she had no other options.

On some days, friends let her sleep at their house or their dorm rooms, but these plans often weren’t reliable. She was only allowed to be signed into dorm rooms when the student was able to be in the room with her, as the residence hall rules dictate.

“So whenever my friend had class, they had to wake me up and then I had to wait two hours until they’re out of class again, and then we’d go back and I could sleep again. So the sleep pattern – not a really good sleep pattern. I had a terrible sleep pattern for a while.”

She said a few of her friends knew she didn’t have anywhere to sleep, and would sometimes tell her she could stay with them any time, but would rarely actually follow through with the offer. There were times when she and her friends would be leaving a restaurant or a bar from a night out, and there would be an awkward moment, when she knew her friends knew she had nowhere to go, but they didn’t offer to let her stay over with them.

Ann said one friend would let her do laundry at her house, and leave some of her clothes there. She also let Ann stay in her room for a few weeks while she was away.

Some nights, she slept in the student lounge in the McCarthy Center, where she said the maintainers recognized her after finding her asleep a few times and didn’t bother her, even though she wasn’t supposed to be sleeping there. She sometimes tried to sleep in the school library overnight as well, but when employees found her there, they didn’t let her stay.

She would also rig the gym locker room door so she could get inside when it was supposed to be locked. “I would put a piece of paper – I would fold it up and then I would like slip it between the lock, so then later, I could go sneak in there.”

She used a few of the gym room lockers to keep some clothes in so that she would have easier access to them while she was at school.

Ann said some men would offer to let her stay in their rooms, expecting that she would sleep with them, even though she was not interested in anything more than a place to sleep.

“They would always assume they would get something out of it. Like, they would wake me up in the middle of the night,” she said, “and I’d be like, ‘No, I’m really just sleeping. I’ll get out if you want me to.’”

She also said she would sometimes go on dates in order to get a free hot meal. Having access to cooked food was one of her biggest challenges.

There was one man whom she was seeing at the time who let her stay over his house fairly often. She said she felt obligated to have sex with him more often than she would have otherwise, because he let her stay at his house so much.

They weren’t much more than friends, though, so she would buy him food to thank him for letting her stay at his apartment, and he would sometimes have other women spend the night while she slept on the couch.

“He was also not a very nice person, so we would fight a ton – about stupid things,” she said.

“He was in it to get laid.”

She admitted she often felt used by him, but many nights, she had few other options.

“I was using my body to stay places? Yeah. That will affect your self-esteem. Oh, yeah. But that’s when you just shake it off, you know? I feel completely different [now]. That was just a hard part of my life – a difficult part of my life. But, you know, people have it way worse.”

Before she was living in her car, Ann had been sharing an apartment with her then-fiancé, a man she had known since they were both in elementary school, and whom she had been in love with since the moment they locked eyes in third grade.

Because she moved a lot when she was growing up, they weren’t in the same middle school, but met back up in high school, when they started to date. They were together for about seven years, and lived together for three.

By the end of their relationship, the two had become unhappy.

“Everybody used to say that he was extremely controlling, and I never really saw it,” Ann said this past week, reflecting on their relationship. “You have to ask yourself what is a healthy kind of love, and that wasn’t healthy at the time.”

The relationship ended when Ann cheated on her ex-fiancé with the man she then stayed with some nights when she was homeless. After they broke up, Ann asked her ex-fiancé to give her space, so he agreed to move out in November.

Ann continued to pay for the apartment, which they were renting from his parents, until one day in December, she came home and there was an eviction notice on the door.

“It was a pride thing – at least for him it was. It was a pride thing. ‘We don’t want you renting from our family, since you broke our son’s heart.’ I don’t know. I think that sucked for me probably the most. At least just as much as being homeless in itself, was just his family, which I love … still won’t talk to me.

“I still think they’re good people even though, I mean, we all do scummy things. It doesn’t mean we’re scummy people.

“We’re all good people. But sometimes good people make wrong decisions.”

While Ann packed and got ready to move out, she furiously searched for apartments. Since her mother was living in Brazil, her family was already renting a storage unit, where she then brought all of the belongings she was able to keep. She threw away a lot of what she owned because it simply wouldn’t fit in the unit.

Once she moved everything she could into her unit and slammed the huge metal door closed with a clang, locking away all of the belongings which had helped to make her apartment her home, the realization sunk in. She was homeless.

Back at the storage unit, a year and two months later, on that cold February morning, Ann got out of her car and peered through the bars of the gate, pointing to the building on the right where her storage unit had been.

She was wearing a big brown jacket that swallowed her small frame, with black stretchy gym pants underneath – because she had a workout planned at the school gym after her visit at the storage center – and beige work boots.

She used to visit her unit alone, and even though it was creepy, she said she didn’t feel afraid.

“There was hospital lighting. It reminds me of ‘American Horror Story’ – an insane asylum,” she said. “It was creepy. Definitely creepy.”

She said despite the level of creepiness, she didn’t feel as if she were in real danger when visiting the unit. “I didn’t not feel safe.”

Just then, an employee of the storage complex came out of the office building and asked if Ann needed assistance.

She explained what she was doing there that day – coming to look at the storage unit where she had paid to keep all of her belongings a year earlier while she was homeless. She didn’t shy away from explaining the situation or using the term “homeless.”

He asked some questions about which unit she had used, asked to see identification and said he would be able to escort her into the complex.

Her work boots crunched on the snow as she directed him through the complex to the stairway she remembered using when she came to the storage facility. At first, he said if her number was what she said it was, her unit would have been elsewhere, but she insisted that she had used this particular stairway and offered to show him where it was.

He followed her through the door and up the stairs to a long hallway where the climate controlled units are. There was the stale smell of items stored away, forgotten. Exposed piping hung from the ceiling.

Ann stopped in front of a unit she knew was hers and pointed it out in triumph. “This is my unit!” she exclaimed.

The employee asked about the circumstances which led to Ann being homeless.

She explained she had been living with her fiancé at the time in an apartment they had been renting from his parents. When they broke up, he moved out and she continued to pay rent, but was evicted anyway, shortly thereafter.

He listened and asked about her job.

She said she was working at Forever 21 at the time while still going to school full time, but with expenses such as her car payment and the storage unit, for example, it was difficult to save for an apartment.

He asked whether she had been afraid, as a young woman, to sleep in her car – how was she even able to fall asleep at all?

“When you get so tired, you just do,” she said with a tight smile. “You do what you have to do.”

She did find an apartment to live in at one point after she had been evicted, and she paid first, last and security for it, but as she began to move her belongings into the apartment, the landlord, an older man whom she described as “creepy,” began letting himself into her unit unannounced while she was there. She asked another resident of the building about the landlord, and she told Ann to get a boyfriend soon so he would leave her alone.

“Being a young woman, living by yourself, that just wasn’t acceptable,” she said. “I felt safer sleeping in a parking lot in my car than I did sleeping with this old man below me.”

Ann never slept a night in that apartment. She moved her belongings out and never got her deposit back.

As they left the unit and made their way back down the stairs to the front gate, the employee said he had been in a very similar situation after his divorce. He had to move out of his home and had almost been homeless himself.

He was working in construction at the time, and was allowed to sleep and shower in the house he was renovating. Otherwise, he said, he would have been on the street.

Later, Ann said it was surprising how many people, once she told them her story, said they had been in a similar situation. She said she would recommend anyone facing homelessness not to be afraid to ask for and accept help.

“There are so many people who are against what they call ‘handouts.’ It’s not a handout if you need it,” she said.

“I have trouble taking handouts now,” she admitted. “I think then, I didn’t care. I was tired all the time. I needed help. I knew I needed help.”

When Ann was desperately trying to find a place to stay, she contacted administrators from the school to find out whether she would be able to afford housing on campus. She said she was offered some help, but she still couldn’t afford to live in a residence hall.

According to Dean of Students Melinda Stoops, “The issue of housing insecurity is a tough one and one that we struggle with in terms of the ways to assist students.  …  In general, if someone is identified with a need in this area, they have been referred to my office to explore options.”

These options might include evaluating the student’s financial aid package to see if more funds are available, offering town resources and trying to determine both short- and long-term needs.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a specific plan or solution in place, but we are willing to meet with any student and do our best to help resolve concerns in this area,” she added.

A number of FSU administrators and faculty have been working on a committee to discuss potential resources the university could be offering students facing housing instability or homelessness.

A clinical social worker at FSU’s Counseling Center, Jeanne Haley, and Kathleen Bohner, the administrative assistant at the Office of the Dean of Students, have been working on this committee.

“It’s newly being looked at in a more official way, I would say, by the university,” Haley said.

About a year ago, Stoops asked the Counseling Center staff if they would be interested in joining the Massachusetts Homeless Post-Secondary Students Network to address the number of students on campus who struggle with housing insecurity.

This Networks includes many community colleges and public universities and its focus is “to create strategies that prepare and support homeless youth to transition from secondary education to succeed within post-secondary education settings,” according to massappleseed.org.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, passed in 1987, offers assistance to students in elementary and secondary school who are facing homelessness or housing insecurity, designating a single contact person at each school for these students. The Network is focused on providing similar resources for college students.

The exact number of homeless students on campus is unknown and nearly impossible to calculate, Haley said, but it is clear that there are a number of FSU students who are dealing with these concerns.

Haley said students may confide in administrators or faculty members on campus. “Various people might know about different students who are sort of in the moment struggling with something.”

Bohner said, “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” and added that administrators including President F. Javier Cevallos have been discussing the option of creating emergency loans for students who need immediate financial help.

While FSU hosted a meeting for the Network last fall, during which financial aid options for homeless students were discussed, and Framingham representatives attend similar meetings hosted by other colleges, few resources currently exist for students facing housing insecurity at Framingham State.

As Ann drove back to campus on the February morning she visited the storage unit she used to rent, she passed one of the houses she had lived in growing up. She pointed it out as she stopped at a red light. Growing up, Ann, her sister and her mother moved around a lot, which made it difficult for her to feel as though she had a stable home.

She hadn’t really had much contact with her father, who became a father young, and she said, was never really ready for that role. When she was evicted, though, he was her only family member in the area.

Her mother had recently moved to Brazil, and her sister was living in Florida. When her father found out she was homeless, he didn’t offer to let her stay at his house. She felt as if he blamed her for the situation she was in because he didn’t think she should have been living with a man she wasn’t married to in the first place.

She thought back to the apartment she had lived in with her fiancé, realizing that it was the first place she really considered to be her home, since she had moved around so often when she was growing up.

The apartment had a single floor with a small loft and a patio out back. The couple had renovated the place together, installing new hardwood floors.

Ann had worked in the Garden section of Home Depot during the summer she lived in the apartment, so she got a discount on all of the supplies she needed to replant the small garden area on their back patio, which hadn’t been growing anything when they moved in.

“I loved the apartment so much. I was trying to make it my home. I think I spent over $500 on new dirt, new soil, mulching, flowers, everything like that. Made it look really like somewhere that would be welcoming, because all the other places I stayed never really felt like a home. It just felt like this is a house I lived in. And that was just because any place I stayed, I was never there long enough.”

The apartment was surrounded by windows on three sides. “I got to wake up with the sun every morning, and that was great. I love that. I love that.”

She could see the Natick library from her patio, which she also loved.

“That’s why it was so detrimental when it happened, because it wasn’t like I was moving into another house, or whatever it was. I felt like someone was taking my home from me, and this was the first home that I had that was mine.”

Now, Ann is living at her father’s house, but she doesn’t feel welcome there. It wasn’t until after her mother contacted him and shamed him into it, she said, that he let her stay at his house.

Ann often joked that her father and stepmother talk to their pets more than they talk to her, “but it’s true,” she said. “It’s just a lack thereof,” she added, referring to their relationship.

She now pays rent and provides her own food, and the room she stays in is also being used for storage. While she said she doesn’t consider where she is living her home, she’s still grateful that at the end of the day, “I get to have a house.”

During the semester she was homeless, Ann was taking Seminar in Literature, the capstone course for English majors, along with three other classes, and working almost full time.

At first, few people at FSU knew Ann didn’t have a stable place to sleep, eat, shower or do homework, so she was often teased about showing up to class in sweatpants and sweatshirts all the time and carrying a lot of bags.

People called her the “bag lady,” she said. “I think the hardest part was trying to stay balanced between everything and getting things done.” Small everyday tasks became unexpectedly challenging.

“Like, school’s really hard. It was really difficult. I had to drop out of a class. I’ve never had to do that before. That was really hard. I couldn’t do everything I expected myself to do.”

She would spend as much time as she was able to in the library, where she would do homework. Dropping the class was a significant personal defeat for her. “I tried so hard to keep everything together, but I just couldn’t muster it,” she said.

Ann said she would dress nicely one day a week, the day she had most of her classes, because she didn’t want her professors to feel disrespected or think that she didn’t take her education seriously.

“I wanted them to see me, like I’m trying,” she said.

“I think a lot of people will come in with sweatpants like every day, but as a professor, you’re there for the students, to teach them and help them learn. So when a student kind of lets their appearance go, and comes in late all of the time, or just doesn’t seem interested, it’s insulting. So I didn’t want me being homeless to affect anybody other than me. Even in that simple sense that I didn’t want my teacher to think I didn’t care about being in that class, when I did.”

But even just accessing her clothes was difficult, as some of them were in her storage unit, some were at a friend’s house and the rest were packed in the back seat of her car.

At first, she had outfits laid out in trash bags so she could grab them more easily, but after a while, it became difficult and she “lived in sweatpants.”

She would have to dress nicely for her job at Forever 21, but she would often wear the same outfit multiple days in a row. “It made me feel less than,” she said, adding that she tried to brush it off.

“Give yourself a trash bag and ask yourself, ‘What do I need?’ What would you put in that trash bag? That was a question I always asked myself. And it got lighter and lighter because you need less things,” she said, reflecting on how the experience of being homeless has changed her outlook on life.

“It’s more about the mental state that you’re in and how you feel emotionally.” She said she just wants to live her life in a way that will make her happy, rather than focusing on material belongings. “No material thing is going to make you feel that way.”

Back on campus, Ann sat in the Starbucks café overlooking the cafeteria as she remembered looking through the same window a year earlier, sick with hunger and angry to see her peers throwing away plates full of food.

While she was homeless, Ann would occasionally climb over the plants that divided the commuter cafeteria from the dining hall, until someone saw her do it. “And that was the last time I tried to do that,” she said.

She would often stop people in the McCarthy Center and ask if they would be willing to use a meal swipe for her.

“Do you know embarrassing it is to stand there and be like, ‘Do you have an extra meal swipe?’ And they’d be like, ‘What? Why?’” she said.

Ann said most people didn’t sign her into the dining hall. “I had tons of people tell me no. But a few people would be like, ‘Yeah, sure. I have a guest pass.’”

Ann knows people who work for Sodexo who gave her free food because they understood her situation. Ann still has financial troubles that make affording food difficult, so some of those Sodexo workers still help her out when they can, though a few have gotten in trouble for not charging her.

Every time she gained access to the dining hall, she would carry out as much food as she could that wouldn’t go bad quickly.

One day, while she was filling her backpack with apples, a group of students started laughing at her.

She marched up to them and said, “I’m f–king homeless.”

Ann said she would normally never say something like that, but she couldn’t hold in her frustration and felt they were being ignorant. “People need to open their eyes.”

Ann’s eyes have been opened by her months of homelessness, and she has changed as a person.

She often stashes food away and keeps changes of clothes in her car because part of her is afraid that she might end up in that position again.

“I don’t forget it,” she said.

“People joke all the time that my homelessness is showing. That’s something that I hear all of the time – and it’s true,” she said.

She also said that she has become more optimistic and feels more empowered by making it through those months on her own.

“After being without a home and being without the security of a locked door and a bed, it was almost easier to be optimistic because it had been really bad, so it’s like nothing can be that bad again,” she said.

The stress of finishing up classes during her senior year has been bothering her, she said, but she knows she can handle it because “at the end of the day, I still get to go home to a bed.”

She said she has more empathy for other people she sees in difficult situations, such as when she sees a homeless person in Boston.

“It’s really about seeing with more than just your eyes – seeing with your heart.”

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