By: Rebekah Hackney
Being homeless* is not something you usually want to admit, especially at Elon. For most people, it is not even on their radar, but it is an issue that needs more attention and awareness on campus. It seems strange to think of Elon students sleeping in cars, but the truth is it happens, and it’s a more widespread problem than you might think.
Homelessness doesn’t happen all at once; it’s a process. For me, the process started late last August when I received an email from the Bursar’s Office that basically told me I needed to write a huge check if I wanted to come back in the Fall. I’ve received this email every year, but while Elon’s cost of attendance continued to rise every year, my financial aid package slowly shrunk. Now that I was starting my senior year, I was out of money and out of options. After being tossed between the Office of Financial Planning and the Bursar’s Office for days, it was decided that in order to stay at Elon, I would need to find a place to live off-campus, which for me meant finding a job.
Taking seven classes and working a part-time job wasn’t easy, so I was somewhat relieved when I lost that job due to my limited availability. I was not so relieved when I realized this meant I had to move out of my house. With no job to pay rent and a new landlord asking for a deposit, I found myself, at the end of the month, moving for the third time that semester…home.
My Mom lives in Raleigh, about an hour from campus. I knew trying to finish the semester would be difficult with a two-hour commute every day, but I didn’t have any choice. I woke up early to make it to Elon for my 8:00AM class, and drove back to Raleigh late at night. To save gas, I slept on friend’s couches or in the library. My closet, bookshelf, and cupboard was the back seat of my car. I didn’t have a meal plan, so I became really good at improvising meals. I attended events with free food, found faculty lounges with coffee makers, and made friends with dining hall workers who occasionally gave me leftovers.
I had a system. I would go home every Tuesday and Thursday night to get more clothes and food. I would shower in the gym locker room and do laundry on the weekends when I could stay home. I would work in the library and then drive home to sleep in my room with no bed. And I would student teach and try to finish my projects on time. Part of me knew this meant I wouldn’t be passing all of my classes, but I’m nothing if not stubborn, and I thought I was strong enough to do it all. I made being homeless a science. I planned out my days and worked out the details, so that I could stay in school.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving Break that I finally found a place to stay. My church has a program that allows families to “adopt” college students so they can have home cooked meals and a place to stay during holidays – I was in need of both. When they learned of my situation, my adopted family invited me to rent out their spare room for the rest of the year, an invitation I accepted gratefully.
Along with the physical effects of this homelessness, my academic performance also suffered. Having nowhere to go makes one feel anxious and alone and I very quickly fell apart. Every single one of my professors emailed me or “had the talk” with me about my low performance, some more than once. What could I say? “Sorry I didn’t finish the paper, Professor, I was busy trying to find somewhere to sleep last night.” I felt tired all the time and it wasn’t from the mountains of work I stayed up doing. I was treading water for weeks and I felt like I was drowning. For me, being homeless affected me so much as to change the course of my college career. That’s why this issue is so important. It’s not just a place to stay; it’s giving students the foundation they need to reach their potential while in college.
I know I have not been the only homeless student at Elon. I wasn’t homeless for long, only about four weeks, but what long weeks those were. I can only imagine how much more difficult that semester would have been had I been homeless the entire semester and not able to commute to Raleigh at least partially. My questions are: Where are the resources on campus for those students that struggle to find affordable housing? Where could I have gone for guidance and support when I saw this coming? I believe if you admit a student with financial need, which Elon wants to do more of in the future, you should see them through, and make sure they receive enough financial and academic support to graduate.
Elon prides itself on being a residential campus. We’ve spent millions of dollars creating one. But if we have the facilities and not the resources to provide access to those facilities, that’s not something to be proud of. We are missing something from our Elon Commitment. This is not me waving my finger at University officials and administrators for letting this happen. This is a wake-up call. There are students at Elon who are homeless or in need, and they deserve the support of their institution in order to finish their education. This is me saying, please, pay attention to your students; genuinely care about where they sleep at night, because if they are here, but are not set up for success, you do them a disservice, not a favor.
*I’ve been told that my use of the word “homeless” is unfair. I thought a lot about this word before I used it. I played around with it, trying to make it fit exactly what I went through last semester: “semi-homelessness” was a bit lengthy, and the Thesaurus didn’t give me any good alternatives. Ultimately, even if I wasn’t homeless in the traditional sense, the psychological anxiety of having no privacy, no stability, no money, and nowhere to go makes up for the fact that sometimes I got to sleep on my mother’s couch or at a friend’s apartment on campus. Homeless means “lacking permanent housing” and in that sense, I was homeless.
Listen to The Pendulum’s interview with Rebekah: