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Homeless student finds comfort, support in University

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Homeless College Students

Morgan Pippin, 18, poses for a photo outside of Brumby Hall on January, 13, 2014. Pippin became homeless at 16 years old. Pippin receives the Presidential Scholarship and the University of Georgia Horatio Alger Scholarship. (Photo/ John Roark)

It has always been Morgan Pippin’s dream to be a University of Georgia student.

“College was a dream for me, but something that I didn’t see as manageable, because it seemed like such a hard, tough challenge,” she said. “I was here for trips, so I knew this was where I wanted to go, always have since about fifth grade, but it just didn’t seem possible. I mean the flagship institution, there’s no way.”

But Pippin, a freshman psychology and sociology major from Claxton, has had a journey that differs from many of her classmates.

When she was 16 years old, Pippin became homeless.

The definition of homelessness for a student, according to the Department of Education, includes living situations that are not fixed, adequate or regular.

“If a student is couch surfing they are by definition homeless because their housing has to meet all three requirements,” said Lori Tiller, a public service assistant for the Embark Program for homeless and foster students through the J. W. Fanning Institute at UGA.

This includes students who may find shelter by sleeping on the couches of friends or by spending the night in common areas, such as the Zell B. Miller Learning Center or the UGA library, said Alan Campbell, associate dean of students and director of student support services.

According to data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid collected during the 2012-2013 academic year, there are more than 58,000 homeless college students in the U.S. This number, which has increased by about 75 percent over the past three years, does not include non-reporting homeless students.

“There are a series of questions on FAFSA that deal with homelessness and foster care,” said David Meyers, a public service assistant for the Embark Program. “Through these questions, this is the best way that we gauge the number of students who are homeless here at UGA. The number of students who indicated ‘yes’ for homelessness last year on their FAFSA was just under 20 students."

When Pippin received her acceptance letter to UGA, she said she was excited but knew there were other factors that would determine whether she could attend.

“When I got my acceptance, I still can’t really describe it. I sounded like a dying walrus. I was crying, laughing and screaming,” she said. “I have always been taught to speak like a realist, but think like an optimist, so I knew there was still the money aspect to figure out and just because I got accepted didn’t mean I could come here.”

Though money was originally an obstacle preventing her from enrolling, after meeting with University officials, she learned that lack of funds would not stand in her way of receiving an education.

“When we went to financial aid, I was told that I couldn’t afford UGA. I sat on the steps of the [Hunter-Holmes Academic Building] and was just done,” she said “Once I got all of the weakness out of me, my 4H agent took me to administration, and they told me that I received the Presidential Scholarship here and the Horatio Alger Scholarship. These are both leadership scholarships here.”

Causes of Homelessness

Homelessness stems from a variety of reasons, Meyers said. Often, financial hardships or social situations prevent them from being able to pay for housing or meal plans.

“The issue sometimes presents itself in high school. So if a student has been homeless or in foster care and manages to get the grades to get to college, they are pretty resilient and they have overcome long odds to get there,” Meyers said. “One consistent thing we have heard from students is that there is this a really strong desire to finish [school].”

Katherine*, a UGA employee, said people can become homeless due to factors outside her control.

“I think there is a lot of stigma around homelessness that these people are lazy or on drugs or something, but my story comes from two very honest and popular reasons,” she said.

Katherine said her mother struggled with mental health issues, so holding steady jobs were difficult for her.

“On her third day of a new job she took a corner too quickly, fell and broke her arm,” she said. Since her employer couldn’t wait for her to return, three days later her mother was laid off.

“Because of the way she felt about that and some of her issues with bipolar [disorder] she did not quickly pick back up again and after all the money ran out and the late notices came we had to leave,” Katherine said.

And for most students, homeless situations are circumstantial, Tiller said.

“I want to say that most of our referrals at UGA come from situations like students coming out [as gay] to their parents, or a financial change with their parents or relationship problems with their parents,” she said. “None of it is horrible, it’s situational homelessness.”

Staying involved

For Pippin, staying involved is what helped her succeed in school.

“I found this in common with another unaccompanied youth,” Pippin said, “We just buried ourselves in extracurriculars because those were safe places and because of those things, I got to come here for free.”

In high school, she joined the 4H Club, which influenced her ability to apply to UGA.

“My 4H agent got me connected with some people who were going to help me out, and I ended up being able to get a job and buy a car. I lived in my car for a little bit, but then after that I was able to stay with someone — a friend of mine whose parents I knew through 4H,” she said. “At that place of residence, I was able to submit my application to the University of Georgia.”

And since coming to college, she has continued staying involved.

Through working with the Fanning Institute, Pippin said she has found a support system.

“Whenever I got here I think the hardest thing was seeing how easily everyone transitioned with their families and realizing that college expenses go beyond just your tuition. Working almost 12 hours a week plus 15 hours of school plus trying to maintain friendships and things can be kind of difficult when you are on your own,” she said.

Pippin said she can call Tiller in the middle of the night for anything from batteries to advice on completing tax forms.

“Having that resource is almost like whenever someone calls their mom or dad. She has been like that to me,” she said.

The Fanning Institute and Student Support Services, a few examples of campus and community based services for homeless students, work on a case-by-case basis with students so they can connect with campus and community resources.

“If they are the ones trying to exist and be resilient on their own, if they miss a test or if anything tiny happens that could change their entire educational outcome because they just don’t know that they can go ask somebody,” Tiller said. “You would call home, and your mom would say we will go talk to your professor. It’s just different when you don’t have that support system.”

The best thing you can do in this situation, Pippin said, is to reach out for help.

“I know that I am super hard headed especially when I was in high school, I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I could do it. I was fine,” she said. “But, knowing that it’s OK to reach out and get help is really important. It gets lonely in college. It gets hard in college. College is supposed to be hard, but it’s OK to go to Fanning or talk to Miss Lori or whoever you want to. It doesn’t even have to be Fanning, just getting involved and finding that family network here on campus makes everything worth while and seem a little less hard.”

Looking forward

Pippin said she is adjusting to college and finding places where she can fit in at UGA.

She joined the Brumby Community Council and the Residence Hall Association and was elected onto the RHA executive board as the National Communications Coordinator where she will lead conferences on housing across the U.S.

Pippin has also used her experience to create a program that improves the lives of other young people who find themselves in homeless situations.

“It’s called Hickory Oak and it’s a peer mentoring program that connects previously unaccompanied youth in college like myself to those who are currently facing it in high schools and middle schools close by and giving them the networks and resources they need to get to college because it seems so far out of reach when you’re in that situation,” she said.

Her dream is to graduate and work on graduate work in psychology and sociology so one day she can become a professor at UGA, which she said has endowed her with so much support.

“This isn’t strange. It’s normal. I am just unique and putting that different label on it has really helped me out a lot,” she said “That is probably the stepping stone that made the transition between high school and college work. Realizing I wasn’t strange or weird at all. I was just me, and that makes me happy.”

Editor's Note: The Red & Black chose to omit the cause of Pippin's homelessness and Katherine’s last name for privacy concerns.