School of Social Work

No. 28 M.S.W. Program in the U.S.

By Alan Rodriguez Espinoza
VCU School of Social Work

Student homelessness and housing instability have been discussed on the Senate floor for years. While data and statistics have added to the conversation, the testimony of Virginia Commonwealth University alum Elaine Williams brought something new — a first-hand experience of student homelessness.

Williams, (B.S.W.’17/SW), says universities across the country are failing students facing housing instability by not providing them with the needed resources. Once homeless herself, she says “the unawareness on university campuses of youth experience of homelessness has created barriers.”

“Homeless youth don’t look like your average homeless person,” Williams said. “Youth experiencing homelessness aren’t a person begging for change. It’s someone that goes to school and works with you every single day, but they don’t have a stable living situation.”

In late November, Williams had the opportunity to raise awareness of these issues in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The committee focused on how to simplify the application process for federal student aid, otherwise known as FAFSA.

“I have been working for years to both simplify the FAFSA process and ensure that it is accessible to all students interested in pursuing a college degree,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) stated in an email. “Parents and students need a clear idea of their overall aid package as early as possible to help them make the right decision for their family and set them up for success.”

Seeking a student’s perspective on the matter, Kaine and the other committee members called Williams into a bipartisan interview, after which she was approved to deliver a testimony on the Senate floor.

In her testimony, Williams explained the ways in which the FAFSA presented her with barriers in the past and how Congress can alter the application to be more efficient. She says a lot of the flaws with FAFSA revolve around documentation requirements.

“They told me I needed a letter from certain kinds of homeless shelters, but there are no homeless shelters in Richmond for youth,” Williams stated in her testimony.

“Elaine’s testimony at the HELP Committee hearing provided invaluable insight into the challenges that homeless youth and students who do not have access to parents’ tax forms, referred to as ‘unaccompanied youth,’ face,” a representative from Kaine’s office stated.

“Senator Kaine is looking into the recommendations that Elaine suggested and how the FAFSA verification process can be improved.”

Williams also recommended Senators “eliminate the requirement for unaccompanied homeless youth to have their status re‐determined every year,” which she says “creates more paperwork burdens for students” and deters students from seeking other forms of financial aid.

“I am in debt because I lost out on qualifying for scholarships that I should have qualified for based on my income,” Williams said. “There were several times when it took four months into school before I was approved for financial aid. How can I thrive in school when I have this balance hanging over my head?”

Kaine’s office points to the Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act as a step in the right direction.

“It would permit FAFSA applicants to use data from the second preceding tax year,” they said. The bill would also “allow students to apply earlier for aid, facilitate a better alignment of the aid application process, and provide more time for students to evaluate awards and make informed decisions about the net costs of college.”

Williams, who graduated from the VCU School of Social Work in May of 2017, first encountered homelessness in middle school, when her mother lost custody of Williams due to problems with addiction and mental health. Without stable housing, Williams moved six times throughout middle school and high school.

“I grew up in poverty, and I didn’t see anyone around me going to college,” she stated in her testimony. “I wanted something different for myself.”

According to a national survey from the University of Chicago, “one in 10 young adults ages 18-25, and at least one in 30 adolescents ages 13-17, experience some form of homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.” Williams wanted to rise above, but the FAFSA made her “feel even more stigmatized.”

The opportunity to share her experience has changed that.

She says sharing her story “helped [her] understand the importance of advocacy, the importance of not giving up… This has given me the strength to keep going.”

“Every youth deserves fair opportunity no matter their experience,” Williams says. “These are young people experiencing homelessness on their own, so if we don’t create a safety net or access to resources that make it easier for them to actually achieve something, we are part of the problem.”

Categories Alumni, Community, Faculty and staff, Students
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