Michelle Yestrepsky appointed contact person for students with food or housing difficulties

Michelle Yestrepsky, coordinator of student services, has been appointed the single point of contact for students struggling with homelessness or affording food, according to an email sent from Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development.

Yestrepsky said she was hired in August 2015, and her position entails helping students to identify resources on campus.

“There are a lot of great resources available, but a lot of people maybe don’t know where to start or exactly how to approach accessing different resources, so I can sit down with students and help with that,” she said.

“I’ve already worked with a group of students who have had a variety of needs – not just food and housing. … I would encourage anybody who needs help to come forward,” she added.

Sara Hakkoum, a senior, said having someone for students with food or housing needs to go to “sounds like a good idea. It’s good to know there’s someone you can go to if you have any concerns like that.”

Yestrepsky is also on the Task Force for Supporting Students with Food and Housing Needs. The task force’s goal is to help students with food or housing insecurity by assessing their individual needs and providing them with assistance.

Paul Welch, director of the Counseling Center, said the task force has been in place since 2013.

Jeanne Haley, staff counselor at the Counseling Center, said a few years ago, several administrators and faculty members heard of students who were sleeping in their cars or the library. She and Welch then started attending state meetings focused on how post-secondary institutions can help students who may be homeless or have food insecurity issues.

Haley said from the state-wide meetings with state and community colleges, she learned there is “a bigger scope of students who are affected that we don’t necessarily know.”

According to Haley, the state-wide guidelines to define who is homeless includes whether a person has “a predictable, safe place to stay on a regular basis.”

She said some students “couch surf” by staying with friends, so they may not consider themselves to be homeless because they aren’t sleeping in a shelter. However, Haley said it is “not a predictably safe – emotionally or physically – place to be on a regular basis.”

Haley said some students are identified by the Counseling Center employees before school breaks. “When winter break is coming up, students might say, ‘Well, I’ve been staying with a friend, but now they don’t want me to stay there, so I don’t really have any place to go,’ or, ‘There was a big blowout at my house and my parents said don’t come back.’

“So we’ve learned about students who might be living in residence halls during the school year but then don’t have a more permanent place to be outside of that,” she said. As a result, Residence Life opened up the possibility to students in these sorts of situations to stay on campus over Thanksgiving and winter breaks.

Welch said at the meetings, they were encouraged to gather groups of people on campus to discuss ways to help those students.

Departments represented on the task force include: Development and Alumni Relations, CASA, Counseling Center, Dean of Students, Dining Services, Facilities and Capital Planning, Financial Aid, First Year Programs, General Counsel, Health Center, Human Resources, Inclusive Excellence, Residence Life, University Police, Veteran Services and faculty members from the food and nutrition, nursing, and sociology departments.

Another result of the meetings was the suggestion of “best practices,” such as having a single point of contact to coordinate information and activities for students in need, according to Welch.

He added it is challenging to know how many students need help.

Yestrepsky said professors have been referring students who need help to her. “Professors are, of course, in contact with their students on a weekly basis, if not daily, so I think students feel comfortable going forward to their professors.”

According to Welch, the task force has been working with UMass Boston to adapt its survey for identifying students with food or housing insecurities for FSU. He added the survey is “in the works.”

Yestrepsky said the survey will go out to all FSU students and will help the University identify the needs of students on campus and different resources students may want, such as a food pantry.

Haley said, “It’s about what the needs are and then what are the things that we can do on our specific campus to address our specific students.”

Welch said one of the challenges is identifying the students who need help, adding a representative from Financial Aid is on the committee to discuss the specific criteria students have to meet on their financial aid applications.

Haley said the point of contact is available for K-12 students and the problem is, “How do we encourage and support them to get through post-secondary and how to get through college?”

Welch said the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act does not require the state to help post-secondary students.

Shirley Fan-Chan, who runs a program called View Access at UMass Boston, has been “the driving force” behind rallying the state and community colleges to start programs and hire single points of contact for each school, according to Haley.

In terms of donations, Haley said last year, the Nursing Honor Society gave $600 in gift cards from Shaws to Health Services and the Dean’s Office for students who might need them.

This year, Yestrepsky said FSU students donated 485 meals in two days at the Share the Meal, Share the Love event during Valentine’s Day weekend for students in need. The event was a partnership with Sodexo and Student Involvement and Leadership Development.

Ralph Eddy, director of dining services and a member of the task force, said the event started as an idea to promote awareness about food insecurity and hunger issues on campus as well as to raise funds and meals.

Eddy said in addition to financial donations, the University established an emergency meal bank to feed students based on their needs.

In addition to the meal bank, the event raised $727.50 for Pearl Street Cupboard and Café, according to Eddy.

Yestrepsky said, “It was a really nice student-supporting-student effort.”

She has already distributed donations to students who self-identified as being food insecure, and encourages any students to contact her if they would like to use the meal bank.

Eddy said Sodexo’s food and fundraising drives, which are hosted each fall, benefit the food pantry A Place to Turn, which dining services has been working with for 7-8 years.

Additionally, for every customer satisfaction survey response from students, Sodexo donates $1 to A Place to Turn. Eddy estimated Sodexo donates a few thousand dollars annually to the charity, and the most recent donation was a few hundred dollars.

Food insecurity “is something that is very close to our mission as well in terms of the work that Sodexo does with the Sodexo Foundation and hunger relief initiatives across the country,” he said.

Sodexo has a donate-a-meal program which allows students to forgo a meal on a specific date in return for a financial donation, he added. This donation then goes to an organization such as A Place to Turn and Pearl Street Cupboard and Café.

When asked about Sodexo’s donate-a-meal program, Junior Kirsten Terrien said, “A lot of people don’t use up all their meals, so it would be nice to put them to use.”

This year, Welch said there is a coat-sharing program in the Athletic Center, which allows students to bring or take a coat as needed.

“There has been a turnover of coats, so that’s excellent,” he said.

Eddy said the “take a coat, leave a coat” program is “fantastic.”

He added, “The most important thing is awareness around the issue. … We have a very diverse student body with people from all different backgrounds and economic statuses, so I think it creates a great sense of diversity when we understand that there are people in either the same shoes as us or in different shoes and under a different set of circumstances.

“I think appreciating that and being aware of that is another goal of the task force, and it’s really being able to take actionable steps to offset some of those insecurities and provide food and housing,” he said.

Senior Mark Gawlak said, “It’s always good to have one person you can go to. If you don’t have to make 20 phone calls to get something done, that’s going to be better for students and faculty and staff and everybody involved.”

Graduate student Michelle Beebe said, “As an undergrad, you come into school and you don’t really know how to be an adult, and you don’t know how to find those things for yourself. So knowing that there’s a person you could contact, especially in that type of situation, I think that’s a great idea.”

Katy Brooks, a senior, said if students are homeless or hungry, “It’s difficult to expect them to perform well academically if they’re not getting their basic needs, especially for students in college. We have a lot of debts and different things that take up our money and resources, so I think there definitely should be more personnel to communicate with if that is something that’s lacking.”

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