Out of the cold and into optimism
Students struggling with homelessness are pointed to education
By Hannah Erickson
“The Pathways Center basically saved my life.”
~ Daniel Howard
When Daniel Howard first came to Clark College, his motivation was simple: he needed to get out of the cold.
It was winter, and Howard, then aged 39, was living on the streets. He’d made his way to Clark College’s Pathways Center. Located within the college’s Transitional Studies department that helps students prepare to take college-level classes, the Pathways Center is open to any member of the community—student or not—who needs help with basic computer skills and job readiness.
Howard’s reasoning ran along these lines: best case scenario, he’d get some help with his résumé that would land him a job so he could pay rent; worst case, well—at least he’d be warm for a little while.
What Howard found when he walked into the college’s “T Building” (the building is shaped like a T) was much more than some temporary shelter.
“The Pathways Center basically saved my life,” Howard said. “Staying here during the wintertime … there were a lot of good programs here that were on the computers that they shared with me. I started being there every day, open to close, studying, and the dean got involved and they put me in a GED class.”
Despite joining the class late, Howard passed his General Educational Development test (GED), allowing him to move forward to take college-level classes. Thanks to the encouragement he received from Transitional Studies faculty and staff, Howard—a quiet guy who had trouble making eye contact with others when he first came to the Pathways Center—felt confident enough to take on college coursework.
But soon a new challenge emerged, one that many Clark students face: college was expensive. And since Howard constantly lived under the threat of being homeless, his anxiety was heightened.
Half are low-income
It’s hard to say how many Clark students experience homelessness during their time on campus. The college’s numbers are based on self-reporting, and many students don’t disclose their status.
“We know they’re out there, though I think people have misconceptions about what a ‘homeless person’ looks like,” said Armetta Burney, director of Workforce Education Services. Her department serves many students receiving public benefits and experiencing financial hardship.
“It spans genders, ethnicities, all different backgrounds. Situations happen in life that you don’t expect. Many are employed. Many are parents. Families are couch-surfing, sleeping in their cars, coming to campus to shower—all kinds of things are happening here that you might not see,” she said.
Since the beginning of the summer quarter, Workforce Education referred 34 students to homeless shelters or services. According to the college’s best available data, more than half the student body is low-income, and staff say that many students are food-insecure as well.
“It’s a real problem on campus,” says Burney. “It is very difficult to focus in class when you’re concerned about where you are going to sleep and what you are going to eat. I wish there were more public services available to support them, but there aren’t.”
Clark is currently initiating a few different efforts to help support students in need. Workforce Education is spearheading a new outreach plan to help destigmatize poverty and the use of public assistance at the college. Additionally, the college hired four resource coaches to help students with needs ranging from public assistance to financial planning to everything in between. And a cross-departmental team is working to establish a food bank on the college’s main campus at Fort Vancouver Way that would provide clothing, hygiene supplies and assistance with applying for public benefits.
The housing struggle is not limited to Clark students—earlier this year, the Vancouver City Council officially declared a housing emergency—but the financial pressures affect them differently because it puts their investment in their education at risk. One setback can derail their entire educational plan, and the constant worry about getting their basic needs met makes it difficult for them to concentrate on their studies.
Every penny used
Daniel Howard learned all about these challenges as he began attending Clark full time.
“I had food stamps, and that helped get me into the next program, which was BFET,” Howard recalled. Basic Food, Employment and Training (BFET) is a Washington State program that provides funding assistance with education, work training and related support services to eligible individuals. BFET helped pay for Howard’s classes while his financial aid was being processed; it also helped him with other unexpected costs.
“BFET’s helped me out with bus tickets,” Howard said. “When I got my financial aid, I got an apartment with another student I met at the Pathways Center. … You know, rent’s expensive. Books are pretty high-priced. I thought it was expensive when books were $350 for the first quarter, but then I got the next three quarters and it was almost $500. I always seemed to be strapped for cash. I have food stamps, and that helps me eat. Financial aid helps me with books. That’s about all I have—I can barely afford rent.”
Despite the challenges, Howard has proven to be an exemplary student. He earned his GED and then moved on to college-level courses. He’s achieved good grades and is now close to finishing his Associate of Applied Science in Paralegal, as well as looking at options to continue toward a bachelor’s degree. During his journey, he’s helped other students while working in the Office of Financial Aid and as a volunteer at the Pathways Center, where he helps visitors use the computers.
Howard’s housing situation remains tentative—one bad housemate or a rent hike, and he knows he could be back on the streets. But he remains optimistic.
“When I first walked into the Pathways Center, my intention was just to find a job, and then it was maybe a better job, and then it was I could really do something with my life,” he said. “And now it has turned into, ‘I can do something with my life that helps others,’ which is why I’m still here.”
Ask for help
Amanda Owens first came to Clark College straight out of high school, but wasn’t focused on her studies and soon dropped out. She returned a few years later, motivated by the birth of her daughter. But at the time, she was ping-ponging through a variety of temporary housing options, making it hard to concentrate on school. Again, she dropped out.
“I think just in general, college is expensive, even if you are getting financial aid,” said Owens. “You’ve got books, living expenses, gas to get to school, supplies. But being a single mom, on top of all that I’ve got all the needs for my child. And so it becomes really overwhelming, trying to spend all this time going to school and maybe do a part-time job or a full-time job to cover the rest of the costs. It became too much the first time. I lasted about two months.”
It was only while speaking with a social worker about finding a job that Owens learned she might be able to re-enroll at Clark—and receive financial assistance while attending. She could even receive a subsidy for her daughter to attend the Oliva Family Early Learning Center.
Now, Owens is close to completing her degree in Business Administration. She hopes to become a social worker herself and help others—a path she’s already started on by working part time in Clark’s Workforce Education office, which helps eligible students receive public benefits in order to continue their educations.
“I think the advice I would give to students is, ‘ask for help,’” she said. “Don’t be ashamed of where you’re at because a lot of people are that way, no matter what your situation is. Stop in and let people know you’re struggling. I didn’t do that and for years I didn’t know that help was out there.”
Last year, Owens helped create a partnership between Clark and Second Step Housing to help students who were experiencing homelessness get into stable housing more quickly. Owens, who is a former client of Second Step, sees this work as part of how she’s repaying the kindness shown to her during her difficult times.
“I think that it’s really daunting, when you’re going from part-time job to part-time job to part-time job,” Owens said. “You never really think you’re going to amount to anything more than a Taco Bell employee. I have a lot more faith in who I want to be and who I want to help in the community. I think that by [attending Clark], I am in return giving back to the community. … But as a mom, I feel proud knowing my daughter is going to get to see me walk across that stage, and knowing that one day she’ll do the same thing and work just as hard.”
When she does, Clark College will be there, ready to support her just as it did her mother.
$1 million scholarship movement
Clark students like Daniel Howard have access to numerous scholarship opportunities through Clark College Foundation or Clark’s Financial Aid office. This academic year, $1 million in scholarships will be distributed to Clark students—the most ever in the 43-year history of Clark College Foundation. To learn more or to become a donor, contact Shirley Schwartz at 360.992.2379.
Hannah Erickson is Clark College’s communications specialist.