STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Home for the holidays, in a dorm room

user Jonas John

This time next week, most college students will be wrapping up their final exams and getting ready for winter break. They’ll pack up their bags and head home for the holidays. 

It’s probably safe to assume that a lot of people don’t start planning for the holidays until November.  But Joi Rencher isn’t like most people. She works at Eastern Michigan University, and she starts talking about the holidays with her students as soon as they arrive on campus in the fall.

"Honestly, you can see terror in their eyes when I bring it up," says Rencher. 

Joi Rencher heads up the Mentorship Access Guidance in College (MAGIC) programat EMU, which provides support for students on campus who've experienced foster care, homelessness, or both. Rencher currently has about 20 students on her roster, and it’s her job to help each one of them come up with a plan for where they’re going to go and what they’re going to eat when campus is closed for roughly two weeks for winter break. 

"I haven't had a joyful Christmas in years."

Rencher has a filing cabinet near her office that she fills with personal hygiene items, snacks, and stuff you can in pop in the microwave.  She admits it’s not the healthiest stuff, but it’s something. EMU keeps a few residence halls open over break, but the cafeterias are closed. So students who stay on campus are on their own for food.

Trudy Greer, a 22-year-old sophomore at EMU, will likely spend part of the holiday in her residence hall. She lives by the adage, "home is where the heart is," and she says her heart is at EMU. Greer has been in and out of foster care, and she considers herself "homeless." Greer says she always feels like she has to hustle for everything – clothes, food, money – and the holidays are a stark reminder of just how alone she often feels.

Last winter break Greer stayed at her old foster home. "It's always welcoming," she says, "but it's never like 'my home.'" The holidays aren't something she looks forward to. Yes, she says, the holidays are supposed to be a joyful time, "but I haven’t had a joyful Christmas in years."

Greer will probably spend a few days over the holiday at her old foster home, a few days with her godmother, whom she still keeps in touch with, and a few days alone in her residence hall.

Believe it or not, Trudy Greer is one of the lucky ones because EMU provides her with free housing over the winter break. But that is not the norm nationwide. In fact, many Michigan colleges and universities have some kind of housing plan in place for students who have no other place to go, including Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, Northwestern Michigan College, Baker College, Wayne State University, and Saginaw Valley State University, among others.

But is that the norm nationwide? 

"Absolutely not," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

"We as a nation are a far ways away from making sure that students who are homeless and trying to get through college have the support they need ... in terms of basic needs like food and housing," says Duffield.

Duffield says it's not reasonable to expect students from "the most disadvantaged backgrounds" to get through college without that kind of support. She says colleges and universities need to "ensure that students have some housing [over academic breaks], even if they're not providing it directly." 

So, for example, a college that completely shuts down over the winter break could shuttle its students over to a nearby school that has housing available. Or the school could team up with a nearby shelter to make sure spots are available for displaced college students over the holidays.

Duffield says if students don't get the housing support they need, they'll be more likely to drop out. And if they drop out and don't earn a college degree, their chances of getting off the streets and climbing out of poverty will be that much harder.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.