Raoul Thompson is one of the many thousands of undergraduates enrolled at the University of New Mexico. He attends classes, participates in student organizations and spends endless hours studying at Zimmerman Library.
His aspirations of obtaining a degree and excelling mirror the ambitions of many students on university and college campuses around New Mexico and the rest of the United States. He has a hunger to prove himself and mold his life into one of success, on his own terms.
He also has a secret. Thompson has no house, no apartment, no condominium — no bed to go home to at night. He has been experiencing homelessness off and on again since 2013.
Thompson is a pseudonym. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to keep his affairs private. His is not a unique case.
A study conducted by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that, among many reasons, social stigma prevents some students from receiving the help they need. 50% of students at a Midwestern public university reported in a recent survey that they did not want to be served by their peers at a campus food pantry.
The study also concluded that 36% of university students in the U.S. are facing food and housing insecurity, while 9% are experiencing homelessness outright. The study defines homelessness as "a person ... without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building or outside."
The researchers noted that their estimates are likely conservative, due to low response rates to surveys sent to 66 community colleges and universities.
For perspective, according to the University of New Mexico, 17,321 undergraduate students were enrolled for the fall 2018 term. If the national trend holds true, that equates to 1,559 UNM students experiencing homelessness, and intuition can tell us this is also a conservative estimate in one of the poorest states in the nation.
The students surveyed for the Temple-HOPE study commonly reported staying at a friend, relative or partner's home. The next most common arrangements were living in a vehicle or at a hotel or motel. Alarmingly, a full 10% of students from this survey reported having sex with someone in exchange for housing or basic survival needs.
This is a shameful mark on the history — and indeed the present state of affairs — of the wealthiest nation in the world. Students at higher education institutions experiencing homeless are but a microcosm of rampant, unchecked income inequality in our "civilization." Oxfam America, an international relief and development organization, declared in a 2014 report that extreme inequality is the biggest challenge of our time.
"Extreme poverty and inequality are the result of a skewed economic and political system that favors the few at the expense of everyone else," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, in the report. "But extreme inequality is not inevitable — it is the consequence of political choices. Practical, smart reforms can level the playing field, making the system work better for all of us."
It is at this juncture that Thompson's identity should be revealed: I am Raoul Thompson.
I go to classes, am involved in student organizations and stay at Zimmerman until 2 a.m. every morning, not only because I care deeply about my studies, but because it's warmer than my van. My Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food benefits, previously $192 a month, were cut off when I started classes at UNM. A Human Services Department caseworker informed me that I no longer qualify, as the state believes that students "have more resources available to them."
What are those resources?
The Lobo Food Pantry is available once a month during a two hour window at the South Lot on Avenida Cesar Chavez. My yield the last time I attended the event was a box of saltine crackers, cans of tomato paste and a head of lettuce. These do not a balanced meal make.
The Associated Students of UNM made headlines last semester when they began an initiative called Wellness for the Homeless. They provided "wellness packs" any student could pick up that included soap, deodorant and other hygiene products. The gesture — while noble — did very little to address the root causes of homelessness; it was a bandaid on a severed limb.
The City of Albuquerque and Mayor Tim Keller have made admirable strides recently to alleviate the suffering of those experiencing homelessness, but more effort can and should be made. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham would do well to emulate a Massachusetts program, announced Feb. 5, that guarantees free, year-long residence hall living for students who had previously experienced homelessness.
According to a recent CBS News report, there are more than 68,000 students who claim to be homeless on financial aid applications. My desire is to be a voice for the voiceless. This is a call for action, stigma be damned.
Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites