Opinion | Columns

Hungry and homeless at Columbia

The first time a Columbia student asked me, “What’s the best library to sleep in?” I thought they were being facetious. When I realized the student’s question was serious, I felt my face flush and was overcome with emotion. I did not have an answer.

I have been asked this same question by three Columbia students so far. I’ve also talked with students who experienced homelessness during the summer. One such student from Columbia College told me that he lived on the streets of New York before I was able to find him someone to crash with. Another, a Barnard student, explained to me how she spent nights sleeping in Riverside Park. Some graduate students are also affected.

I have been asked by dozens more about where they can find free food and food pantries. I’ve had people tell me stories about how they’ve had sex to pay for groceries and how they’ve passed out because of hunger.

I’ve heard and read about all these stories because last year I founded Columbia University Class Confessions, an online project designed to raise awareness of socio-economic issues. It went viral for about a week, and because of that, students began to see me as a person who could connect them to help.  

But I am not a social worker, and my abilities are limited. Columbia, an institution with an endowment of $9.6 billion, is not limited by the same constraints that I am. Columbia, like many other universities, has a hunger and homelessness problem. Yes, it only affects a small subset of the population, but nobody should have their ability to learn and self-actualize so dramatically impeded.

Thus, I believe Columbia (inclusive of the graduate schools, the School of General Studies, and Barnard) needs to invest in long-term resources such as a food pantry, social workers, and emergency housing for students at risk.

While Columbia has an Emergency Meal Fund that allow students to receive six free meals per semester, these programs fail to address chronic food insecurity. For many students, six free meals a semester is not nearly enough. Investing in a food pantry could help students like Christine Janumala, CC ’16, who spoke to PBS last year about her experiences dumpster diving for food.

As such, Columbia should invest in a food pantry. Professors such as Temple University’s Sara Goldrick-Rab have conducted research showing the prevalence of food insecurity at community colleges, resulting in a growing conversation in the media about starting food pantries at colleges. While there are food pantries throughout New York, they can be extremely difficult and intimidating to navigate, which has caused many students in need to not view off-campus pantries as viable solutions.

We also need a social worker who can intervene when members of the administration can’t or won’t. In the past, when I approached administrators about housing and hunger issues while doing activist work, I was given a list of nearby hotels and told that hungry students should think about finding another job. Most admins are wonderfully kind people, but the administration itself is difficult for poor students to navigate, given their unique needs.

Columbia should also invest in subsidized long-term housing for homeless students. I can assure you, these students do exist here. They tend to be GS students. While many students are reluctant to speak about this, Anna Demidova, GS ’16, recounted last year her experience of having to sleep in the Barnard student center for two months when she was homeless.

Thankfully, I am blessed. Unlike many of my peers, I’ve never had to spend a night on the streets. I’ve never starved. But I did grow up on food stamps and welfare, and growing up in poverty has instilled in me a pervasive sense of financial precariousness. I’ve lived in fear that one bad decision or one missed meeting with my welfare caseworker could result in a disaster.

Food insecurity and homelessness are taboo topics here. Thus, people are reticent about asking for help. This is why we need a campus social worker, a person who can connect struggling students with food pantries, food stamps, and housing resources off-campus. Perhaps this role could be fulfilled by a graduate student from the Columbia School of Social Work.

If a student is going hungry or is crashing on a different couch every week, these are not good conditions for learning. Social workers can deliver hope and connect people to resources they might have not thought about.

Have you ever tried studying while hungry? Or while homeless? It is impossible for students to achieve their true academic potential while they face such drastic issues. Investing in these students will improve academic performance, increase retention rates, and help Columbia truly support economically struggling students.

Toni Airaksinen is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies. She is a first-generation college student and a teaching assistant for Barnard’s environmental science department. She tweets @Toni_Airaksinen. The Ivory Tower: Deconstructed runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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