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He’s a college senior with a 3.4 GPA. And he’s homeless.

YPSILANTI – Ramone Williams is always hungry, but at the end of a Shakespeare class recently at Eastern Michigan University, he was ravenous.

As usual when it was too cold to sleep in his van, Williams had slept in the college library the previous night. He awoke on a bench in the computer lab just 30 minutes before his first class. He rushed to the student recreation building to take a shower, using toiletries and grabbing fresh clothes from a locker he keeps at the facility.

He didn’t have time to visit a second locker, the one in the Student Center where he stores bags of snack food he gets from a free food pantry on campus, before classes started.

At 3:15 p.m., with his last class behind him, Williams headed for the Student Center food court, doing some quick arithmetic in his head. He likes to carry a can of soup in his backpack, but he’d had his last can of sausage gumbo for dinner the day before.

That meant he was going to have to buy a meal. Subway was too expensive. He liked the pita and hummus at the Middle Eastern eatery, but it wasn’t filling enough to sustain him until the next morning. He decided on a Wendy’s value meal that included a small cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, fries and a drink. At $4, the meal was more than he likes to spend at one time.

“This is what gets me anxious,” he said.

Williams is a college senior, reports a 3.4 grade point average and says his ambition is to work in radio, TV or information technology. He’s also homeless, sleeping on campus and searching bulletin boards for student events serving food.

He works two part-time jobs. That money is enough for tuition or a place to live, but not both.

Williams is choosing a degree over a home.

“My worry isn’t where I’m going to be at night,” Williams said. “My worry is how am I going to complete what I need to do?”

Invisible on campus

Homeless students like Williams often fall through the cracks of federal, state and institutional financial aid programs that often are not designed to help students in extreme poverty.

All 15 public universities in the state have a staff member designated as a contact for homeless students, but a point of contact doesn’t necessarily mean financial support. At some schools, many long-term homeless students (particularly those who were in foster care) can attend for free. At other schools, including Eastern Michigan with its more modest endowment, homeless students don’t necessarily get more of a tuition break than the children of middle-class parents.

Both in Michigan and nationally, Ramone Williams’ story illustrates the economic hurdles faced by extremely low-income students trying to earn a college degree, and underscores why so few graduate.

At a personal level, his story may mean even more. At a time when six out of 10 believe the American dream is dead, Williams proves how far some are still willing to travel to reach that dream.

“Don’t give up. Never lose faith,” Williams said. “If this went on another 10 years, … it would be worth it.”

Library bench for a bed

Williams is far from alone. With colleges not required to identify and track homeless students on their campuses, the federal financial aid form (FAFSA) provides the only indication of the scope of the problem. About 56,000 students nationally checked a box on the FAFSA indicating they are homeless.

“We think there are a lot more,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a national advocacy organization for homeless students. “Many are embarrassed to admit it or don’t think they’re homeless because they haven’t stayed in a homeless shelter. A lot are staying in cars or sleeping in libraries.”

They’re the most invisible of vulnerable groups on campus, said Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the same organization. “People think they haven’t seen homeless on campus,” Lee said. “It’s not going to be some old man in seven coats on the corner. It’s going to be a young person in a jogging suit looking just like everybody else.”

Williams tries to keep it that way, avoiding drawing attention to what he calls “my situation.”

When the weather was warmer, the 26-year-old Flint native slept in his 2007 Grand Caravan in parking structures and parking lots that are free or unpatrolled at night. When the temperature dropped, he began sleeping on a bench behind a partition in EMU’s 24-hour computer lab to avoid the eyes of fellow students. He thinks fewer than 10 people at the university, staff and students combined, know he is homeless.

“I don’t want to be a distraction,” Williams said. “I feel like if I were to tell someone higher up, it might be detrimental to the school, for them to have knowledge that someone is homeless going to their school. Maybe it’s against the rules or something. Maybe I’d get in trouble.”

The senior, majoring in communication media and theater arts, is indistinguishable from his classmates beyond the contents of his backpack, which is stuffed with clothing rather than textbooks and pens.

“That’s what I work on, not giving the impression I’m homeless.”

William has never had it easy. His father wasn’t in the picture when he was young, and his mother moved to New Orleans, leaving him and his brother to be raised by their grandmother in Flint. His mother died when he was 13.

Williams’s grandmother paid for the boys to go to Catholic school. “I got a perfect attendance award in elementary school and high school,” Williams said. “She made sure of that.”

He earned an associate’s degree in computer information systems at Mott Community College in Flint, and enrolled at Eastern to get a bachelor’s degree. For a year, he shared an apartment with several classmates.

But last year his grandmother fell ill, forcing Williams to drop out of school and care for her for more than a year. He returned to campus to complete his senior year this fall, when his grandmother moved into an assisted living center. He had enough cash to pay tuition, but nothing else.

Others might be angry. Many would give up. But Williams, wearing a Carhartt stocking cap and well-worn sneakers, keeps trudging from the tub of clothing he keeps in his car, to classes, to Dom’s Bakery, where he pulls a tea bag from his backpack and dips it into a 25-cent cup of hot water.

“My grandmother fought so hard for me to go to school,” Williams said in a quiet voice. “I realize how difficult it is to go college, let alone finish it. But I feel that if I can complete it, I’ll have more freedom; that somehow I’ll be able to flourish and it’ll be worth it. So I keep grinding, getting through the day, every day.”

Student loans and resiliency of steel

“The resiliency of college homeless students is astonishing,” said Duffield, of the national advocacy group. “The misperception is that if you’re homeless, you should try to get any kind of job and higher education shouldn’t be on your radar. When in reality, students know that higher education is the only way out of their circumstance. It is an absolute necessity if they’re going to get on with their lives.”

Another misperception: students so poor that they can’t afford shelter qualify for enough financial aid to go to any college for free.

Students can apply for federal need-based financial aid. But federal aid for low-income students, known as Pell Grants, tops out at $5,775 for a school year in 2015-16. That’s about half of the average annual net cost paid by Eastern Michigan University’s low-income students, those with income below $30,000 a year ($10,938 in 2012-13, the most recent year data is available.)

(See average net costs at all Michigan public universities here.)

Homeless students often struggle to successfully complete financial aid forms, which require information such as previous tax records and permanent addresses. “There are some real policy and practice barriers” to assisting homeless students, Duffield said.

Financial aid officers have some discretion, and can help independent homeless students fill out their paperwork, according to Hannah Duckwall, financial aid counselor at Western Michigan University, which has a well-known program for students who were formerly in foster care.

But many homeless students like Williams have developed survival skills from being left to fend for themselves in life, and don’t ask for help. Only about a quarter of Michigan State University students (100 out of 400) identified through financial aid forms as having experienced homelessness or been in foster care as teens are receiving academic, social and financial assistance through the university’s program to help that vulnerable population.

“It’s not a situation they’re proud of,” Duffield said. “There’s a lot of fear and shame and it makes it very challenging.”

“I don’t want to be a distraction. I feel like if I were to tell someone higher up, it might be detrimental to the school … Maybe it’s against the rules or something. Maybe I’d get in trouble.”

Always living on the economic edge, Williams’ financial situation was made more tenuous this semester because he’d already received Pell Grants for the maximum-allowed 12 college semesters (including four at community college).

To pay for tuition for the fall semester, Williams said he took out a $2,500 federal loan, and paid another $2,500 that he’d earned in jobs over the summer.

All told, he owes about $10,000 in federal loans.

The fate of students like Williams matters not only on an individual level, but a statewide economic matter as well. Michigan is below the national average in percentage of adults with college degrees. Improving Michigan’s college-completion rates is key to boosting family earnings and the economy as a whole. Students from middle- and upper-income families already complete college at high rates; it’s the children of low-income Michigan families that are struggling.

“It’s common sense – college costs play a much bigger role in outcomes for low-income students than for students from higher-income families,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network. “If low-income students are going to play a critical role in Michigan’s economic comeback public universities ought to prioritize need-based financial aid.”

Worrying about a tragedy

Joi Rencher is typing another memo, this one to an Eastern Michigan University regent, asking for more help for the school’s homeless students. “I have a big mouth, and if things need to be known, I’m not afraid to make them known,” Rencher said. “It hasn’t cost me my job yet.”

As head of EMU’s MAGIC (Mentorship, Access, Guidance In College) program assisting homeless students and students who have been in foster care as teens, Rencher has become an outspoken advocate for some of the university’s most vulnerable students.

Rencher said “it is insane” that students like Williams, who is part of the MAGIC program, have to be homeless to afford college. “Eastern doesn’t have a lot in the bank (for need-based financial aid) compared to other schools. There aren’t private donors setting up scholarships for these students.”

She has very little money to assist the six homeless EMU students she works with. So Rencher provides them with practical information, such as which parking garages are free on weekends in case they need to park their vehicles someplace sheltered from the wind. She gives them directions to Ypsilanti food banks, and keeps metal filing cabinets outside her office filled with cans of soup, ramen noodles, tea, hot chocolate, gloves, toothbrushes and soap.

“If there’s a workshop, I always make sure there’s food,” Rencher said. “Even if other departments are having events with food, I let him (Williams) know.”

In November, Rencher brought Williams to a faculty-only Thanksgiving luncheon so he could fill a plate with turkey and stuffing.

Williams is in the minority – few students who have experienced homelessness or foster care even make it to college, let alone break down the barriers to earn a degree.

“When you don’t have a place to live, all you can think about is, where am I going to sleep tonight? So how could you focus on your education? Rencher said. “For the six I work with, it’s amazing. They say education is the only way out of this situation.”

Michigan’s 15 four-year public universities all have a staff member designated as a contact person for homeless students, one of only five states to have such a system.

“Some are doing a stellar job implementing campus programs for food and shelter,” Duffield of the national homeless student organization said.

For example, students designated as homeless at Michigan State University typically get free tuition and housing, said Andrea Martineu, coordinator for MSU’s FAME program. FAME matches students with academic mentors and holds social events. MSU also keeps some dorms open and rents hotel rooms for students who don’t have a place to go to over the holidays.

At the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the Blavin Scholars program offers a variety of academic and mentoring services for students who were in foster care. Program participants have a 95-percent graduation rate. U-M’s generous level of financial aid allows students with extreme financial hardship typically to attend at no charge, said Emily Hurtado-Arboleda, of the Blavin program.

Schools with less financial wherewithal than U-M and MSU can still offer services by being creative, Duffield suggested. Universities can keep their dorms open during holiday breaks so homeless students have a place to go. George Mason University in Virginia allows students on college cafeteria meal plans to donate unused meals for the use of low-income students who don’t have meal plans.

“It’s not rocket science,” Duffield said. “It just takes awareness of the issue.”

The MAGIC program at Eastern Michigan operates on a shoestring. It is funded by a grant to assist students who were in foster care, so Rencher can’t use funds for the homeless. A few individual donors allow Rencher to stock the food pantry and have a handful of gift cards in her office.

“I could do something with $10,000,” Rencher said. “I could get gift cards to Target and Walmart for clothes. Kroger has a hot deli so we could get hot food.”

Changes may be coming. In response to questions about this story, Geoff Larcom, executive director of communications for Eastern Michigan, said EMU “has identified the issue of homeless college students as an area of concern that needs attention.” Larcom said the university “will hold a series of meetings in January and February to discuss the challenges that students experiencing homelessness face; the prevalence of the situation at EMU; ways to positively impact these students’ experiences; and how to collaborate across the campus in an effort to provide resources and support for our students.”

Those meetings are a surprise to the EMU office in charge of homeless student services. While Larcom told Bridge the meetings “far predate your inquiry,” Rencher said Wednesday she was “completely unaware of any attempts to hold meetings to discuss this issue.”

Rencher said she hopes it doesn’t take a tragedy to raise awareness of homeless students. “My biggest fear right now,” she said, is finding a student “frozen in a van.” I don’t want it to have to get to that point.”

In a few days, most of the Eastern Michigan campus will be closed for the holidays. Most students will rush home to the warm embraces of families, trees surrounded by presents and kitchens filled with the smell of fresh-baked cookies. The library, where Williams sleeps, will be locked for 10 days.

Williams is unsettlingly calm about the prospect of sleeping in a Grand Caravan over Christmas and New Year in Michigan, where the temperatures will likely plummet below freezing.

“Maybe it’ll be cold. Maybe it won’t,” he said. “There are some parking structures where there’s shelter from the wind. If it’s too cold, I can walk around Meijer.”

CVS has large bags of kettle corn for $1, Williams said. It’s filling enough to last through a day. And some public libraries will be open.

“I know it’ll get better, but I don’t know where better is yet,” Williams said. “I just know it’s somewhere. I just have to find it.

“A lot of people give up easily,” Williams said. “It’s easy to feel hopeless. But I will get through it.”

Tuesday night, Williams finished his last class for the semester – singing in front of an audience for a musical performance class. It was an anxious moment for someone who tries to stay invisible.

“I’m learning that I have to feel I belong here,” he said. “I don’t have to apologize for my situation. That’s taken time.”

He stepped on the stage, and launched into a song from the Broadway musical “Shenandoah.”

Papa’s gonna make it all right, babe,
Papa’s gonna make it all right.
So hushabye and don’t you cry,
Papa’s gonna make it all right.

You’re gonna flourish and grow, babe,
You’re gonna flourish and grow.
Like daffodils on rollin’ hills
You’re gonna flourish and grow.

Papa’s gonna scare off the summer storm.
No rain shall fall on your head.
Baby’s gonna be all safe and warm,
Tucked in your very own bed.

Papa’s gonna make it all right, babe,
Papa’s gonna make it all right.
Now don’t you fret or be upset.
Papa’s gonna make it all right, babe,
Papa’s gonna make it all right.

(Update: Numerous Bridge readers have asked how they can help Ramone Williams. A GoFundMe account has been set up in his name here, and a separate GoFundMe account to support homeless student services at Eastern Michigan, is here. For more information or to make a donation to homeless student services at Eastern Michigan University, call 734-487-0899.)

UPDATE: Bridge readers open hearts and wallets for homeless student
SLIDESHOW: Portrait of a homeless student

To reach Ron French, email him at

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