The holiday season typically inspires thoughts of bounty: Thanksgiving Day dining tables overspread with an abundance of foodstuffs and/or numerous gifts spread beneath Christmas trees. My mind, however, especially at Thanksgiving, often moves in the opposite direction to memories of a much less bountiful time in my life.
According to a recent New York Times article, “Seventeen percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the last year, according to a 2019 survey of close to 167,000 college students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia. And half reported housing insecurity, paying only part of their rent, skimping on utility bills, or sleeping on friends’ couches and sometimes in their cars.” The number is not much better on the campuses of four-year institutions, where, according to the same study, the percentage of homeless students is at fourteen percent.
This issue is especially poignant for me as, for three-quarters of my junior year of college, I was a member of this largely-invisible homeless population. Having been evicted from an apartment for somewhat spurious reasons and with no means or the time to fight the eviction, I was quite literally kicked to the curb. My roommate quickly procured other accommodations. I could not afford a place by myself with what I had set aside for future rent payments nor did I have the time or wherewithal to find another roommate, especially as it was mid-semester. Therefore, I made a questionable decision to use the erstwhile rent money to pay down a tuition bill I already could not afford and to live homeless. The university may have provided services to students in my predicament, but if they did, I didn’t know of them, nor would my pride have allowed me to take advantage of them. The shame associated with homelessness and hunger is one hard to imagine unless you’ve been homeless and hungry yourself. Out of desperation, I took a few short term jobs for cash money during that period that only a desperate person would take, but I’d rather not go into those specifics.
As one of eight children with several siblings in college at the time and several others still in Catholic school, even if I shared my predicament with my parents, they would not have been able to help financially any more than they already were. So, I kept it to myself. This was a time long before cell phones allowed for easy tracking of one’s children; therefore, I’d occasionally call home collect, and they were no more the wiser. I could have transferred at the semester to a less expensive university closer to home and succor, but I greatly valued earning a diploma from the college I was attending, I was already three years into my program, and I had made great friends as this story attests. Besides, I was a twenty-year-old male, my decision-making skills were a long way from maturity.
During those months of homelessness, I established a sort of circuit that allowed me to crash on the dorm room floors of various friends, who were kind enough to host me, my mesh bag of clothing, and my bookbag without once making me feel ashamed of my outcast state. My best friend, Chris, and his roommate, Junior, even procured and stored a spare mattress for me that I’d drop on their already limited (and quite disgusting) floor space. I could not stay too long in any one place, however, or the RA would figure out what was going on and, most likely, report me. I’m pretty sure more than one actually did know what I was doing but took pity on me and looked the other way.
Many were the nights when I could not gain entry into dorms or my friends’ rooms because I lacked the necessary keys, and/or they were out doing the things college students typically do, which I, obviously, could not afford to partake in. On such occasions, the library was my refuge. I can’t count the number of naps I took with my face planted between the pages of some textbook or even splayed out on a third-floor piece of furniture that was more bench than couch. Thankfully, although the library would close, the doors to the student center and main classroom building were always unlocked. They provided me a place of warmth and an emergency home for the night when necessary. Many university students are night owls with peculiar hours and study haunts; therefore, I did not appear conspicuous. Maintaining personal hygiene was a constant source of stress and concern. I could usually use friends’ bathrooms and combine loads of wash with theirs, but there were times when a library sink would have to do and clothes had to be worn a second or third time.
A daytime trick was to report to my work-study job in the university print shop but not always punch in as I was allotted the maximum but still a limited number of work hours and income. There were often bowls of various candies to which I’d help myself in as prodigious yet stealthy manner as possible. My boss was not very tuned in to my comings, goings, or helpings to his candy. Every other Friday, I would visit the bursar, pick up my check, withdraw fifteen dollars to cover the next two weeks, and sign over the remainder towards tuition.
In addition to shelter, food security was precarious. Whenever I could find a ride with someone heading north, I’d take it, and before my return, my mom would do my laundry and provide me with groceries, which might last a week or two if I could find a place to store them. If you’ve ever lived among young men, you might know how quickly food is assumed to be communal property and devoured. On many days, my entire caloric intake consisted of a candy bar and a small bag of chips. I regularly attended noon mass, not out of extreme devotion to my faith but because the on-campus chapel served chunks of bread for communion rather than the typical wafer-sized host. I’ll admit occasionally visiting more than one line of communicants in order to procure seconds (Lord, have mercy on my soul.). Once again, several friends who were on meal plans and knew my predicament often came to my aid by pilfering extra helpings in the cafeteria, which they would wrap in napkins and deliver to me. I finished that school year weighing about a buck twenty-five, a good twenty to twenty-five pounds below my usual weight.
This is a story that I have rarely shared. Why would I? It was not exactly my proudest moment, and I really didn’t want my parents to feel bad or blame themselves. It was then and remains mine to own. I guess I’m sharing it now on the day of our nation’s annual tribute to gluttony because although I’m blessed beyond deserving these days, there’s a small pang of hunger that never leaves my belly, and I know there are still too many college students and regular folk who are food and shelter deprived while living in what is the wealthiest nation on Earth. These deprivations have grown especially pronounced as America struggles to overcome the unemployment and financial distress that has resulted from an anemic governmental response to the Covid-19 epidemic.
You might think that having experienced such short-term poverty, I would be a regular volunteer for organizations that provide food and shelter for the needy. Sadly and to my discredit, I’m not. Ironically, my experience has had the opposite effect. Instead, I have great difficulty visiting such charities as I’m flooded by harsh memories of my own hard-knocks period, and I’m stricken by anxiety whenever I do.
If you are so lucky as I am to sit down to a bountiful Thanksgiving meal this year and to shower gifts upon your loved ones this Christmas, be sure to appreciate your good fortune and try at least to be mindful of the many who will be needy through the holidays and into next year.
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