Hidden in Plain Sight: Youth Homelessness at Colorado College

When sophomore Cassandra Franceschelli arrived at Colorado College, she had $40 in her pocket. As her first summer approached, she was faced with homelessness and housing insecurity. Franceschelli had almost no money and no place to live for the three months.

Photo curtesy of Cassandra Franceschelli
From left to right: Melissa Tang and Cassandra Franchescheli. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Francheschelli.

On Tuesday night, a student organization called Roots opened an exhibit to give homeless people in Colorado Springs a chance to share their stories. No Colorado College students were profiled. A New York Times study found that 24.2% of Colorado College students are in the top 1%, making the common assumption that CC students are mostly well-off enough to have a home legitimate, but a full 10.5% of CC students are in the bottom 60%. Sophomore Cherry Jones said that while they have not yet incorporated CC students who are housing-insecure into Roots, they believe it would be a good idea in the future.

Homeless students, however, often don’t want people to know their situation. Savanah McDaniel is a senior who has been housing-insecure for all four of her years in college. Being homeless is “extremely personal and intimate, and usually painful and traumatic, so that is hard,” she said.

McDaniel was a mentor and co-chair in Questbridge, an on-campus organization for low-income students. Unfortunately, outside of one-on-one discussions, she doesn’t feel like she has much room to share experiences and tips for navigating the system with other students.

“There is a class divide at CC, and I’m already on the bottom of that, so I don’t really like to say, ‘Oh yeah, I also don’t have a home,” said McDaniel. Though Questbridge made coping with this reality easier, “there are only a handful [of students]… that experience it,” she continued. “Those who do, unless they know you are also experiencing it, don’t want to talk about it.”

Savanah McDaniel at Graduation. Photo courtesy of Savanah McDaniel.

Knowing who to talk to can be crucial, and talking to the wrong person can make it seem like there are no options. Associate Vice President for Student Life John Lauer explained that it is not housing or residential life that helps students in financial crisis, but the college itself. Student Life has an emergency fund that exists to provide “funding for high-needs students and students in crisis facing unexpected financial needs,” according to CC’s website. “This [emergency fund] isn’t a housing fund. I’m administrating it not because I’m connected to housing but because I’m [the] associate vice president for student life.”

During her freshman year, Franceschelli went to the housing department for help, which she figured was “a good place to start.” Her idea was to “raise money cached in some kind of emergency fund so that if somebody did need to access that money for over the summer, which is the most at-risk time, they could do that.” Franceschelli said she was told that the school could not help her and that she couldn’t fundraise on campus.

“If they can’t help you, I get it, but you do have to give me resources so I can do something about it,” said sophomore Charlie Johnson, another housing-insecure student.

There is now a concentrated effort to make this process clearer. The Office of Student Life “works closely with people in the financial aid office now, and they will actually refer people to me,” Lauer said. The financial aid department is also working on making their website clearer. Director of Financial Aid Shannon Amundson also discussed communication; “The departments are separated, but we talk all the time,” she said.

When a student arrives at school, their homelessness doesn’t just go away, and often the support of the emergency fund is not enough.

“[In my application to CC] I wrote an essay about how I lived in my car and aced all my AP classes and did a great job, and they sent me a letter saying the essay was so inspiring: ‘Congratulations, you persevered,’” Johnson explained. “But then as soon as it comes to where they need to deal with it, they don’t have anything to say. If I wasn’t at this school taking classes, I would have a full-time job, and I wouldn’t be homeless.”

From left to right: Halle Schall, Charlie Johnson, and Jules Francis Russell. Photo courtesy of Charlie Johnson.

One limitation of the reserve is that it is funded by direct donations. Therefore, some of the money can only be used for specific things. So far, it is used for food, medical expenses, books, and sometimes clothing, but never for housing. Additionally, the fund has run out before. Even if there is enough money, “Sometimes the student might not be eligible because they’ve reached their cap,” Lauer said, “So then we have to be looking at, ‘Okay, so what might be possible?’”

A cap is the cost of attendance, COA: the cornerstone of establishing a student’s financial need. It sets a limit on the total aid that a student may receive. What is normally included in that value is tuition, books and supplies, room and board when school is in session, dependents (children), reasonable costs incurred when a student studies abroad, and disability expenses. COA is an attempt to quantify the total cost that the average student paying full tuition spends.

Any school that receives federal funding must abide by federal limits on the COA. Though Colorado College is a federal institution that has a large financial aid budget, many students attending the school receive federal grants or loans. “If you want to enroll in the summer or doing research, we can give you summer money, or that can be part of their contract, but if you’re not enrolled, our hands are essentially tied,” Amundson explained. “To say, ‘Sure we can let you stay here for free,’ that’s just not an option.”

There is, however, leeway for the school to adjust a cap and work outside of it. Non-qualified education expenses are counted as income. They are taxable but can pay for things like medical expenses, insurance, transportation, and meal plans. The school, according to the federal guidelines, also has “the authority to use professional judgment to adjust the cost of attendance on a case-by-case basis to allow for special circumstances.”

“A goal at CC is to increase the number of students who receive financial aid to increase diversity on campus,” Amundson said. “It is difficult to meet requests for funds for other programs while trying to meet that goal as well … There are conflicting goals at CC and all invested parties (students, employees, alumni, etc.) must be able to acknowledge the limitations and opportunity cost of every decision we make.”

Johnson thinks this isn’t good enough. “I told [the school] already, I’m homeless and I don’t have anywhere to go, and there’s just genuinely nothing that I can do,” Johnson said. “What do you want me to do, pitch a tent on South Commons yard?”

If you want to help ensure that no Colorado College students carry the burden of living without a home, please reach out to John Lauer (jlauer@coloradocollege.edu) with donations to the emergency fund. If you cannot donate, please share this with other people who possibly could. 

Charlotte Schwebel

Charlotte Schwebel

Charlotte is a first-year from New York City. After getting a glimpse of the great events at Colorado College her first semester, she decided the best way to experience them was to write about them. Charlotte is fascinated by current events from campus to Congo. Her go-to's for news are the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and the Washington Post.

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