Church and community college partner to house New York students

Trinity Church Wall Street is located about a mile from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, but the two institutions seem quite far apart. The church is over 300 years old and exceptionally rich; it held more than $6 billion in real estate assets as of 2020. The college, one of seven community colleges in the City University of New York system, was founded 57 years ago and serves some of the most poor in the city.

Nearly half of BMCC students, 47.8%, received Pell grantsfederal financial aid for low-income students, spring 2021. The student body is among the bottom 2% of community colleges nationwide by socioeconomic status, according to data from the Equal Opportunity Project.

BMCC, like most community colleges, has no dorms and enrolls many students who do not have stable housing. A 2019 Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice report at Temple University found that 48% of CUNY students experienced food insecurity a month before completing the survey. More than half, 55%, said they had no secure accommodation and 14% said they had been homeless in the past year.

Beatriz de la Torre, executive director of housing and homelessness at Trinity Church Wall Street, said she was shocked when she read the report and wanted to help. The church plans to give the college $2 million to house up to 50 homeless students for three years and provide them with a dormitory-like experience. The grant is part of a record $46 million in donations to charitable causes distributed in 2021.

“Think what it would be like, trying to graduate sleeping in a shelter or really not knowing where you’re going to sleep tomorrow – and how awful and unsettling it is – it quickly crushed me,” she mentioned. “I was just like, ‘We have to do something about this.'”

BMCC administrators are exploring possible locations near campus in lower Manhattan, and housing could be available for a subset of students as early as this spring, with plans to reach the full 50 students by September. fall, according to de la Torre. She said the BMCC will decide which students are eligible and what on-site services and amenities to offer.

BMCC officials said there are housing options available for students without housing, but not enough to meet demand.

The college’s Advocacy Resource Center works with community organizations to find emergency shelter for students and gives them emergency funds to help pay for housing. The center received more than 4,000 requests for emergency funding during the pandemic, most of which included requests for rent assistance, according to Karen Wilson-Stevenson, acting vice president for institutional advancement, and Julie Appel, director of Project Impact, a program for formerly incarcerated students at the BMCC.

“Many of our students are in insecure housing and living in shelters, couch surfing, living in transitional housing, or sleeping on the subway,” Wilson-Stevenson said in an email. “It’s very difficult to focus on academics while worrying about where you’re going to sleep at night.”

Nicholas Freudenberg, director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and a distinguished professor of public health, said CUNY community colleges primarily serve populations that are “most vulnerable to housing instability and housing issues.” Three-quarters of CUNY community college students have household incomes of $30,000 or less, well below the median household income in New York, according to a report 2021 by the Center for an Urban Future.

“As the largest urban public university, we have a high concentration of low-income students, students of color, immigrant students,” he said. He also noted that New York City is struggling with “a particularly acute shortage of affordable housing.”

BMCC is a minority-serving institution with a student body that as of fall 2020 was 39% Latinx and 32% Black, two groups that have been hit hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic. The student housing problem has also been exacerbated by the pandemic. CUNY researchers surveyed 528 college students in April 2020, and again a year later, to assess how the virus had affected students’ basic needs. In 2020, 9% of students said they were paying more for rent than before the pandemic, and 7.7% had moved due to the pandemic. Almost half of students said they were at least somewhat worried about losing their accommodation in 2020, and 38.8% said the same in 2021.

Freudenberg said that while these percentages may seem “modest,” as part of the more than 250,000 students enrolled at CUNY institutions, the impact is “substantial.”

“There has been a lot of housing disruption as a result of the pandemic,” he said. “Some people could no longer afford where they lived, so they moved in with family or friends, and others had to pay more of their income for housing. And what we learned at the times at CUNY and New York is that when you pay more for housing, you get less for everything else.

These conditions can hinder students’ academic progress and have contributed to pandemic-related enrollment declines at CUNY campuses and colleges nationwide, he added.

“If you’re worried about losing your home, it makes it much harder to focus on schoolwork,” Freudenberg said. “It makes you think about having to go out and find a job; it makes you wonder if you can afford tuition fees or university textbook expenses etc.

Ann Shalof, CEO of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, which provides supportive housing for homeless young adults and those coming out of the foster care system, said there are likely academic benefits for homeless students. -shelter living together. The coalition received a planning grant from Trinity Church last year to develop a similar pilot program to house up to 50 CUNY students and provide them with support services. The goal is to eventually create a model that can be studied and replicated, even if the project is still in the planning stage.

The hope is to provide a “learning environment”, she said. “If you think of a college dorm, the idea for us is that there would be a cohort that would live and learn like a lot of people do when they go to college. I also think there will be a range of needs among students. For example, some may say, “Thank you for the roof over my head.” I really don’t need anything else,” and you can have some who have all the traumas and needs that come from everything they’ve been through up to this point in their lives. We would be prepared to serve the full spectrum.

Christina Endres, program specialist at the National Center for Homelessness Education, said it’s more common to see colleges tackling student homelessness by working with individual students rather than offering a housing option specifically for students without housing, although she has heard of similar efforts at other colleges. and universities.

She thinks college leaders across the country are becoming more aware of the needs of homeless students.

“Since there are colleges, there are students who struggle with it,” she said. “Colleges recognize that this is a problem and that they need to put in place supports for students. »

de la Torre pointed out that student homelessness is a problem “far too big for philanthropy to solve.” While partnerships like Trinity Church’s with BMCC can help, she said policymakers still need to find broader solutions.

Freudenberg agrees. He thinks New York lawmakers should make a concerted effort to expand the pool of affordable housing for students and other low-income residents in the city.

“It shouldn’t be that in the richest city in the world, any student should live on the streets,” he said. “Allowing them to be homeless and jeopardize their academic success is poor, short-sighted, money-saving and foolish policy.

Shalof noted that young adults can be overlooked as an important unhoused population because they remain “largely hidden.” They are less likely to show up at homeless shelters and “couch surf” or “go parent to parent.” They could spend their nights in arcades … find a McDonalds open all night to sit in” to avoid the dangers and discomforts of shelters, she said. They are often physically able to sleep on the floor or on a sofa, which means “they may not be homeless, but they are nonetheless. We need to be aware that this invisible homeless population exists.

While de la Torre expects broader, longer-term solutions from policymakers, she wants other philanthropic organizations to “adopt” their local community colleges.

“I hope it will be scaled up,” she said. “I understand that this is a small contribution to solving a huge problem. I hope it brings attention to this truly troubling problem that exists in New York but also beyond.

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