The following story is based on narratives collected through an IRB approved research, which was conducted by George Mason University researchers.
“Homelessness is overwhelming. Homelessness is overbearing. Homelessness is humbling,” said a Mason student. Unfortunately, even students at George Mason University suffer from hunger and homelessness. They are students enrolled in classes, pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree or even a P.h.d; they live among us yet sacrifice their very basic needs in order to get an education.
Ramon moved to Fairfax, Virginia in hopes of pursuing a Masters’ degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He applied for financial aid months in advance, however he was not eligible for the full amount he had requested. Ramon found out that the university would not cover his housing; he found out that he would have nowhere to live.
Uncertain of where to go, Ramon stayed at a hotel in Manassas for several days. For the next couple of weeks, he lived out of his car. Ramon was also a diabetic and constantly worried about refrigerating his insulin. He befriended employees at local shops and restaurants that were able to help him out, but Ramon was still struggling to get by.
“It’s very difficult to try to be a student when you’re sitting in the back seat of your car”
He used the gym facilities on campus to wash up, brush his teeth, shave and take care of other hygienic needs. He studied at Fenwick Library early in the mornings and late at night to avoid studying in his car. For breakfast, lunch and dinner – he lived off of Lunchables. Yet, he said, “I didn’t want anybody to have pity, I didn’t want to be looked at like that because I come from a background of impoverished, drug plagued, gang plagued, severe poverty.”
At George Mason University, this hidden population is living under the radar; uncertain of where their next meal will come from, uncertain about securing housing, and uncertain of their future.
Barbie, a Caribbean native, moved to the Washington D.C. area in search for better opportunities and an education. During her first few months in Virginia, she stayed at hotels and slept in her car at rest stops. This is just one example of a George Mason University student who is struggling to survive in one of the nation’s most affluent counties.
Due to her father’s income, Barbie was unable to obtain financial assistance and was consequently left without means to secure housing. Currently, Barbie lives off of fishing in order to maintain her health and to ease her hunger. Sometimes, she even has to hunt squirrels.
“I find the most isolated road, like areas where no body is traveling, and I try to hide the car in in the bushes and just try to relax”
Like many, Barbie is struggling to find affordable housing near campus. At the same time, she isn’t seeking help from anyone. Barbie feels alone, scared, and embarrassed – she hasn’t even told her parents yet that’s she’s been homeless. She’s a hardworking student and part-time employee; she’s doing her best to make ends meet in hopes of getting a Masters degree.
Drew is a young man who is pursuing two undergraduate degrees from George Mason University. However, Drew was also homeless for four months while he was a student. He received some financial assistance and worked part-time but did not make enough to where he could afford renting a safe place.
“I remember that summer; I think it was one of the hottest on record. I was almost suffocating at night, laying in my bed trying to sleep,” he said.
Drew lived out of his van; he used a small fan to keep his body temperature cool as the summer heat essentially baked the vehicle. He was lucky to have friends and family that allowed him to couch surf, and provided him with food and other essentials. Drew lived off of canned tuna and crackers, and bought Subway sandwiches when he could afford it.
For the majority of the four months, Drew parked his van in one of Mason’s parking lots. He had several run-ins with the police whom instructed him to leave the premises. Drew tried to seek housing at local homeless shelters, where he found out that the waiting list extended for months.
Drew and other students in similar situations are high achieving students, ones who are striving to get an education in hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
Write to Yara Mowafy at firstname.lastname@example.org