Homeless on campus

One student's experience living in their car for three months

Published by Matthew Glover, Date: December 10, 2023
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Sitting outside Eisenburg Classroom Building on a cold night during the fall 2022 semester, campus police pulled next to Skye (they/them), knocked on their car window and asked, “are you Skye?”

Skye, 28, experienced homelessness for three months during their second year at SRU studying philosophy and cultural area studies on Japan. As a first-generation, non-traditional college student, they have funded their education by themselves besides accepting scholarships and federal financial aid.

Police told Skye that Eisenburg closes at 10 p.m., and they could not sleep there. Skye said they were a student using the building to study, but police would not allow them access. Police offered to help Skye find a place to sleep then never followed through, according to Skye.

Skye did not know how the police knew their name or car.

Skye primarily lived in their Hyundai Sonata, a four-door sedan, with two cats and their cat tree stretched across the cabin. Skye had three cats but gave one to a friend before living in their car.

“My oldest cat is still with us, and my middle cat ran away toward the end,” they said. “When we were trying to get him into safety, he took off into the woods. It’s [been] a lot of loss.”

For sleeping, Skye had a blanket and bought a Squishmallow from the Love’s Travel Shop to use as a pillow. On cold nights, they would turn their car on for a few hours at a time to stay warm.

They also slept on couches in friend’s dorms and in Eisenburg’s basement study lounge during this period before police stopped them.

Skye said they would frequently use the library and the ECB study lounge to work on assignments on the desktop, then rest on the couches. They never stayed in one place for too long because they did not want others to realize their situation. Skye also slept in various Sheetz parking lots to utilize the 24-hour facilities.

Skye had an on-campus meal plan but said they relied on Sheetz often for a cold sandwich with their EBT card. They could even toast it and get fries on top as long as she selected the cold sandwich option at the beginning, they said.

Skye reserved a spot for on-campus housing for the fall 2022 semester, but they would not have been able to afford it without taking out a private loan, putting themselves further into debt.

“I always remember at the end of the day, I got in my car, and I just sat there because I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” they said.

During those three months, Skye said they had weekly reports filed for them through Student Support Connection to Care, and sometimes twice per week. They said a new Care representative would message them every week but not offer specific resources.

Student Support Connection to Care, or a “Care” report, provides students the opportunity to anonymously report an individual who they feel may need assistance or is in a dangerous situation.

“The biggest frustration I have now is the fact that no one has checked on me since,” Skye said. “They had a student coming to them frequently about this issue, then the student stopped. Are they curious about what happened to the student?”

Rock Pantry+, SRU’s food pantry, was one of the most helpful resources Skye utilized for tangible goods, they said.

For hygiene, Aebersold Recreation Center employees allowed Skye to use the showers and keep supplies in a locker.

“I didn’t go back to it for a while because it was a little triggering,” they said, “but this semester, I actually went back and looked in there. All my stuff was still there…that was cool of them to let me do that.”

Skye also met with Dean of Students Karla Fonner to get emergency housing. According to Skye, Fonner said the housing was free at first, then they would need to pay a $1,000 dorm fee for a longer stay. Otherwise, Skye would have accepted the offer, they said.

In an interview with The Rocket, Fonner said SRU’s emergency housing is designed for students who need a bed for short-term stays or are in an immediately dangerous situation, not for students experiencing chronic homelessness. The students with the most pressing health and safety needs typically get outreach first.

When students are placed in emergency housing, it is often a standard dorm room and is always temporary. Offerings vary based on on-campus occupancy. This semester, the university had one emergency housing space set aside.

“The goal is to keep you there until we can find the next steps for you,” Fonner said.

This semester, SRU’s on-campus housing capacity is over 100%, according to Interim Provost Michael Zieg. Fonner said she would not call the increased on-campus occupancy a burden, a hurdle or a challenge, “it just involves a little more creativity depending on what’s going on.”

SRU also has a Student Support Fund with more than $100,000, which Fonner’s office has used to help students with first month’s rent. In extreme situations, the funds can be used to put students in a hotel, she said. Whenever using the fund, the office first verifies that it will not negatively affect the student’s financial aid and they have a long-term plan.

SRU Student Counseling Center did not help at all, Skye said. She had asked the counseling center to help them find a trauma specialist since SRU’s services are designed to help with academic and social stress.

According to the Student Counseling Center’s Scope of Service webpage, students whose needs require expertise not found in the counseling center are also referred to outside resources that can better address their needs.

Skye said she wrote them a letter outlining exactly what she needed, but they did not connect them with outside counseling services.

“There was a period of time where I gave up asking for help because I felt like nobody was listening,” she said. “Nobody was actually giving me help, and I was getting really frustrated.”

Out of frustration, Skye conducted a silent protest where she printed 250 flyers at the library asking SRU to build more affordable housing and posted them to bulletin boards around campus.

“The very next day, they were all taken down,” she said. “Nobody said anything. Nobody did anything. It was like it never happened.”

Off campus, Skye turned to charities and churches that offered them help with security deposits and first month’s rent, but she did not accept it because it would help them get housing, but not maintain housing.

Despite their circumstances, Skye has maintained a 4.0 GPA. She plans to study abroad in Japan next semester before graduating.

“I really feel like the only reason I was able to get through it was all the different jobs I had on campus,” she said, “and my professors were very helpful at allowing me to talk to them about it even though they couldn’t really do much.”

Skye said their professors did not know about their circumstances for most of the semester until they asked for assignment extensions or to reopen an assignment folder because of their circumstances.

Professors would sometimes offer Skye money, which they felt guilty for accepting. A dean also offered to allot a small weekly stipend to help Skye pay for gas, but the next time they spoke, the dean did not know who they were, Skye said.

Skye had on-campus jobs in the tutoring center, in the philosophy department, in the LLCW department, and as a conversation group leader in a Japanese class. They feel bad that they were not fully present all the time when interacting with students because of their lack of sleep and thoughts of where to go for the night.

“I felt more connected to campus by being there all the time, but I also felt isolated,” they said.

Skye also volunteered at Slippery Rock’s VillageFest and for the Homeless Bag Project at Butler SUCCEED, which they thought was ironic since they were homeless at the time.

Butler SUCCEED, or SRU’s Center for Community Engagement, Empowerment and Development, has their community outreach office at 150 N. Main St in Butler.

When Skye first told them about their experience, employees offered money and a job with AmeriCorps., a federal agency for national service and volunteerism. This experience would not work out.

AmeriCorps. personnel at Butler SUCCEED requested Skye be physically examined at Butler Memorial Hospital. Skye requested another hospital she could visit for the physical because of past trauma associated with the hospital, and “they basically just stopped talking to me,” Skye said.

Skye eventually met a classmate who convinced their parents to let Skye stay with them, and they have been staying with their family since.

“After that experience, I got uncomfortable being in my car and had to redecorate it,” Skye said. “I bought seat covers and colorful mats to put everywhere just to tell me brain that it wasn’t the same as before to make myself comfortable driving again.”

Skye recalled seeing other students live in their cars during the pandemic, and they also met another student who had lived in a tent on campus. They knew they were not the only one who had experienced homelessness at SRU.

“That semester went by really fast because I wasn’t trying to be focused on my experience,” they said. It was harder at night because I had to look at it in the face, but during the day, I just tried to be normal. I felt more connected to the work I was doing than I did to my experience.”

 

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Matt is a senior majoring in Strategic Communication and Media with a concentration in converged journalism and minor in Political Science. He enrolled at SRU as a junior in the spring 2021 semester and contributed to The Rocket before becoming the news editor in fall 2022. Before that, he wrote sports articles for The Penn at IUP. Matt spends his free time playing music, socializing with friends, and playing with his cats, Max and Odele. Matt is graduating in December and is currently actively seeking employment.

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