Homelessness and housing insecurity among college students is an increasingly prevalent social issue across the US. Clearly this pressing concern has implications for schools of social work as well as our work as practitioners, as housing insecurity and homelessness have become some of the most salient issues of our time. This study, conducted at a large, public University makes a significant contribution to what we know about prevalence while also making use of multivariate analysis to aid in the understanding of the relationship between variables and their relevance to the problem. Of particular interest for social work are findings related to student mental health.
The current study used a sequential mixed-method design consisting of a survey of a random sample of students in the fall of 2019, and follow-up interviews and focus groups with students identified as housing insecure.
The central research questions included:
- What are current levels of housing security at the University?
- Are students aware of and using existing housing programs?
- What is the impact of housing security on academic performance?
To effectively address these questions, both survey and focus group data were collected and analyzed. A total of 1,416 complete surveys were collected (48% response rate). Fourteen students participated in focus groups or individual interviews to further explore the quantitative findings from the surveys. Survey results were linked to existing student demographic and academic data to augment our understanding of implications on student success.
Investigators found that more than 43% of students surveyed experienced one or more incidents of housing insecurity, and that 12.5% of the sample, experienced at least three incidents of housing insecurity in the past year. The number one reason cited in the survey was insufficient funds to pay for housing. In addition to financial need, students of color and students who were less aware of campus services were more likely to be housing insecure.
In terms of homelessness, the data indicate that 14.7% of students had experienced homelessness in the previous 30 days or 12 months. The most common forms of homelessness were couch surfing or staying in a vehicle. Financial need also increased the chances a student would experience homelessness. In the context of mental health, results suggest that students experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness are more likely to report poor mental health than students who are stably housed. Results from focus groups and individual interviews support these findings and further illuminate the nature and substance of this problem.
This research makes several important contributions to the existing literature on student homelessness and housing insecurity. First, due to the particularly high response rate and close match with the student population, the sample in this study is highly generalizable to the student body. Second, unlike the majority of the existing research, this study utilized multivariable statistics to control for various influences on the results. For practitioners, particularity the findings on mental health, give further credence to advocates for improved campus resources for counseling and wellness.