Student homelessness at Wichita State is a multifaceted concern

This story was produced during the Elliott School of Communication’s Capstone Class. Students reported on housing issues faced by students. They were paired with mentors from the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. Melanie was mentored by Stefania Lugli of The Journal. The Elliott School is one of the WJC’s 11 partners.

Melanie Rivera-Cortez, Elliott School of Communication – Wichita State University

Wichita State has worked to establish numerous resources for students struggling with housing insecurity, but students may not be aware of where to turn to for help.

According to Katie Davidson, the director of student outreach and support at Wichita State, 18 students have filed reports of homelessness to Wichita State University’s CARE Team during the 2023-2024 school year. Another 16 said they lack access to food.

“I’m sure that number is a lot higher,” Davidson said.

Davidson said that student homelessness could mean a variety of different situations beyond living on the street, such as couch surfing or living in one’s car.

Davidson said students also report struggles with academics or lacking transport to school, which don’t immediately point to a homelessness issue but can have a correlation with housing insecurity.

Nineteen students went to the CARE Team, a group “committed to helping ensure students’ needs are met,” with reports of poor hygiene, which Davidson said could potentially be linked to mental health concerns or a lack of access to hygienic materials or access to a shower.

Davison said housing insecurity affects international and domestic students in unique ways.

One of the common issues Davidson encounters with international students is a misunderstanding of the cost of living.

“They’re only allowed to work on-campus jobs and that’s not going to pay very high. And (they’re) only allowed to work up to 20 hours a week,” Davidson said.

She said more often than not, international students cannot support themselves in these types of jobs, so her office has to find different ways to combat student financial concerns.

Davidson said filling out a CARE report is simply a way to get students the resources they need such as hygiene products, financial literacy or food accessibility.

Domestic students who are attending school and working full-time also frequently come to Davidson’s office.

“The (student) demand is just difficult and I think that is what’s causing a lot of students to maybe have these housing insecurities,” Davidson said. “Living off campus, there is not a lot of affordable housing in Wichita. The cost of living is going up, cost of rent and all these affordable places (around campus) are going up as well.”

The CARE Team is a short-term solution to get a student connected to the right resources. Davidson said that her office might meet with a student one to four times, but they do not follow up with them throughout the semester.

Katie Austin is the Wichita State director for housing and residence life, which includes the Suites, the Flats and Shocker Hall. All combined, these dorms house approximately 1,000 first-year students and 500 upperclassmen – about 8% of the entire Wichita State student population.

In February, her office offered an optional satisfaction survey to those in on-campus housing that gave Austin and her team insight on how to improve living on campus next year, including a question about where students plan to live during the 2024-25 school year.

Some students answered that they were not going to be attending Wichita State next year, only 3% said they were going to live in a residence hall again, 25% said they were getting an on-campus apartment and 22% were going to be living in a fraternity or sorority.

Only one student said they were going to live off campus and 30% said they were unsure of their living situation next year.

Austin said her office has worked with students who face housing insecurity to figure out what they can do to help, but that resources are only available to current Wichita State students.

“We are only student housing, so if you’re no longer a student, unfortunately, you’re no longer able to live in this housing,”Austin said, explaining that off-campus students are outside of her department’s responsibility. “So that’s really tough.’

Austin said they have paid for students throughout the years to stay in hotels for the night and often provide extensions for students when they are in a tough situation.

She made one thing clear: the Housing and Residence Life department does not offer free housing to a student who is homeless or is having trouble paying dorm fees because they do not have the room space, according to her.

“It’s more about getting them the right resources, helping them advocate for themselves, connecting them with financial aid. Maybe there’s aid dollars out there,” Austin said. “Housing is a tricky thing because you have always got to thread the needle of not too full and not too empty.”

During this academic year, Austin worked with the Financial Aid Office to provide a new scholarship for students who demonstrate extraordinary need.

“We were able to direct some dollars at a very focused group of students based on what Financial Aid said needs it the most,” Austin said. “So that was a way that we felt like we could help with some of those housing insecurity issues that some folks have.”

Austin, who has worked on the Wichita State campus for almost 10 years, said that although she does not interact with many students who have experienced homelessness, she has looked for opportunities to help students and is aware there are unreported cases.

“I get CARE reports and see that there are students that definitely are couch surfing, hopping from family to friends’ homes for different reasons,” Austin said. “I think a lot more of those are getting brought to the forefront or through people getting more familiar with the reporting forms that the CARE Team uses.”

Caitlin Nolen supervises the Shocker Support Locker located in Grace Wilkie Hall. The locker started as a food pantry but has transitioned into an essentials locker that offers food, school supplies, hygiene and baby products.

Nolen said she is not the first contact for homeless students. The CARE Team reaches out to her and lets her know what a student is needing from the locker.

“In the past for our homeless students, they just needed some food and so I was able to create food packages for them, but also, some warm clothing or even some (bedding) sheets,” Nolen said.

Nolen said with Wichita State’s campus located in a food desert, an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food within a certain mile radius, students have to determine whether their money will go towards rent or gas to get food. She said that although there are no concrete plans to bring a grocery store to the Fairmount community, the addition of a grocery store near campus students would increase access to affordable food.

She said there is a stigma when people think of the word ‘homeless.’

“I feel like that’s a big image that people believe. If you’re homeless, you have to look a certain way, but I do feel like that’s false because if I tied in the work I do with food insecurity, you cannot look at someone and tell that they’re food insecure,” Nolen said.

With the efforts Wichita State has made in recent years to bring light to these issues, Austin said Wichita State students are becoming more aware of the problems students face on campus.

“I honestly think it’s probably always been a problem and we’re just knowing more about it. Now the awareness is higher,” Austin said. “Students are actually doing what we ask and, see something say something, or reaching out themselves to say, ‘Hey, I need help,’”

Students struggling with housing insecurity or homelessness can fill out a CARE Team report to get connected to resources.

The WJC is embarking on 18 months of dedicated coverage to shed light on the pressing issue of affordable housing in Wichita.