For many college students, winter break means a respite from the rigors of academic life, a few weeks at home in a childhood bedroom with home-cooked meals and visits with high school friends. But for the more than 33,000 homeless college students in the U.S. — including many in the D.C. region — the pending winter holidays bring with them the stress of figuring out how to keep a roof over their heads when dorms are closed.
Darelle Doleman is one of those students. The junior at Trinity Washington University considers the college her refuge. Her parents were drug addicts, so she grew up in her grandmother's home. When Darelle was in high school, her grandmother died, so she moved in with an aunt.
For a while, life was good. She got a scholarship for college and everyone kept saying they were proud of her. Then, just before finals last year, her aunt called and said Darelle was not welcome back home for the summer break.
"Something about my godfather's parole officer didn't feel it was okay for me to be there," she says.
At first, Doleman didn't believe her aunt was serious. "I couldn't fathom someone who's been there for me so much telling me I couldn't come to their house," she says. "It was very heart breaking. It hurt so bad like, what’s wrong with me, that nobody wants me around?"
Doleman, who excelled in high school, began struggling to keep up with her college coursework.
"I had a nervous breakdown. I was cutting myself and I was depressed. I really didn't want to be here," she says. Doleman's holidays aren't happy anymore. She now spends every vacation in a youth hostel. She’s pared down her belongings to a minimum — it's easier that way, she says.
"I don't have knickknacks or photos or posters. I don't carry all that stuff with me. You have to worry about storage, about who's going to help me move my stuff into the next place I have to go?" she says.
Sense of shock from students
Doleman's story is a familiar one to Barbara Duffield, who works with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Current statistics on the number of homeless college students are almost certainly an underestimate, she says.
"Some students may not recognize their situation as homelessness because of the stereotype that a homeless person is living in the street," she says. "Also, a lot of fear and shame about admitting your situation."
A national hotline on education and homelessness was so swamped with calls about college students, it had to create a separate number for that subset of callers, Duffield says.
"There have been growing inquiries because the problem is getting worse. Students who are being asked for documentation they can’t provide," shes ays. "Often times questions like what will I do during break? How can I cobble together resources to pay for housing?"
The students are often shocked to find they don't have a home to return to, says Monica Gray, director of programs at the College Success Foundation, a D.C. nonprofit that works with Doleman and other low-income students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college.
"In some cases it's because the family has becomes homeless. In others it's that another relative has moved into the home," Gray says. "In some cases it’s the families that think well, 'now you're 18, you're on your own.'
College choice so much more than 'which one?'
These students often have adult responsibilities. They may be contributing money to food and rent or caring for older relatives. Sometimes, they're the only ones able to translate for family members who don't speak English.
That's why choosing to go to college can be an extremely difficult choice, Gray says.
"It's, 'Do I make a long term commitment to myself, go off to college or do I address the short term challenges that my family is facing now,'" she says.
The worst part, she says, is these students have had to overcome immense challenges to get to college in the first place.
"They feel like they're doing all the right things, they didn't take the path to prison or to dropping out of high school and then they're hit with this," she says.
Some colleges are trying to provide supports for these homeless students, but most aren’t doing anything, according to Duffield. In some cases, "there is even a hostility toward students who are presenting themselves as homeless and overly aggressive efforts to require things of them they can’t provide and turn them away from college," she adds.
Strain of instability can take its toll
David Johnson, whose name has been changed because he asked that his real name not be used, thinks of college as his home. He's a sophomore at George Washington University, and worked hard for a full scholarship.
"I wanted to counteract the stereotype that black men don't go to college," says Johnson. But last summer, Johnson's father became increasingly upset with him for getting back in touch with his mother, a former drug addict. His father told him to leave and he started sleeping on friends' couches.
Keeping up with school work and worrying about his future led David to fall ill, and he was hospitalized briefly. Even now, thinking about having to take out loans to pay for housing over the winter break fills him with anxiety.
"It's like you're carrying something around at all times. You can’t separate that from your other life in college," he says. "It tears at you emotionally. Bad dreams, cold sweats. You feel unstable."
Yet David is determined to get his degree despite these challenges.
"I've seen my mother and father struggle all their lives because they didn't finish college," he says. "And I don't want that for myself. I need to work through the college system for there to be a better end."
David longs for the safety and security of his dorm room year-round. It's the closest thing he has to a real home.
[Music: "Homeward Bound" by Steven Sharp Nelson from Tender Mercies: The Sacred Cello Series]