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DHHS: 13K college students are homeless

Kadyja Harris recently stepped down from serving as the director of the the New Hampshire Youth Success Project, helping young people in similar situations stay in school and get the support they need. (Courtesy photograph)
Kadyja Harris recently stepped down from serving as the director of the the New Hampshire Youth Success Project, helping young people in similar situations stay in school and get the support they need. (Courtesy photograph)

The high cost of living has hit lots of people in New Hampshire hard in recent years, leading to a rise in homelessness and food insecurity, among other things. One group of people is often overlooked when it comes to this issue: college students. For them, the state’s high tuition costs can add more strain.

It’s hard to get exact figures on how many New Hampshire college students are experiencing homelessness. In part, that’s because homelessness in general is hard to measure. It could look like anything from living in a shelter to living on a friend’s couch.

To count the number of homeless students, the federal government relies on what students put on their applications for federal student aid. By that measure, in the past five or so years, several hundred students in New Hampshire said they were unhoused and/or didn’t have a parent or guardian.

But the state count has a much bigger number. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 13,000 students at four-year schools will experience homelessness this year. That’s more people than would fill all the seats in the University of New Hampshire’s football stadium.

Financial hardship and homelessness has shaped the college experience of many New Hampshire students in recent years. Here are the experiences of two of them.

Kadyja Harris

Kadyja Harris grew up in Concord and Manchester. When she was a teenager, she decided to leave home with her little sister, because life with her parents felt unstable. They used substances and ran into trouble with the law, Harris said.

While her sister was able to stay with their grandmother, there wasn’t room for Harris. So she lived either in her car or with friends.

“My whole life, everything I had was completely out of control — from the clothes that I had to the car that I have, but the one thing I could control was pursuing higher education and making sure I made something out of myself in the ways that I want to,” Harris said. “I don’t want to say I got addicted to my education, but it’s something that was always there that I always had that I had that was mine.”

While she says she wasn’t the overachiever in high school, Harris used a program called Upward Bound that helps low-income first generation students like her get into college.

She graduated high school in 2014 and was really excited when she got her first acceptance letter, from New England College. She said yes quickly but soon realized getting in was only part of the battle. Paying for tuition, books and everything else that goes into life on campus would be a lot harder.

To help pay for everything, she relied on a full-time job at Dunkin Donuts.

“I kind of worked with the circumstances that I had,” Harris said. “The college that I was going to was $50,000 a year just to commute, and it didn’t include the meal plan. So I worked at Dunkin Donuts, and I would eat there. But then after a while, you kind of get sick of it.”

It was tough. Eventually, Harris ended up transferring to an online school because of cost.

Still, she says the support of friends helped get her through, and the process didn’t deter her from continuing her education. She got an associates degree in drug and alcohol counseling.

Since then, she’s served as the director for the New Hampshire Youth Success Project, helping young people in similar situations stay in school and get the support they need.

“If you don’t go through it yourself, there’s not a lot of knowledge that you have,” Harris said. “But even the students that you think wouldn’t go through something like that, they probably are.”

Harris says the racism she encountered as a Black woman made it harder to get help, so she often was left to fend for herself. Research has found that Black and LGBTQ+ students in New Hampshire are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

“I showered the best that I could every day,” Harris said. “My hair was always done right. I had makeup on; I had clean clothes. But I had to work hard to keep up that image. You know, it wasn’t easy.”

Celene Johns-Thomas

Fending for herself and fitting the norm was also the strategy Celene Johns-Thomas had to use when she started out at UNH.

“During college, part of the thing I did to keep myself from thinking about it too hard is I kept busy,” Johns-Thomas said. “I took the required classes because I needed to stay there. I ran (Dungeons & Dragons) weekly with friends. I did all the stuff you’d expect a normal college student to do. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to hang out with friends and have a fun, normal college experience.”

Johns-Thomas was raised with the expectation that everyone in her family would go to college. In fact, her parents told her if she didn’t go, she couldn’t live with them.

But while she was in college, her parents wound up separating. Their new arrangements didn’t include a place for her.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing with myself,” Johns-Thomas said. “I was just sort of existing in college to exist at all. because there wasn’t really a home to go back to.”

Johns-Thomas is trans and felt like people often assumed, wrongly, that that was the reason she couldn’t live at home. She said it became easier to let people think it was because of her gender identity than to field questions about what really happened.

At school, she lived in the dorms. While she worked really hard to fit in, money was tight.

She often couldn’t go out to eat with friends. Instead, she was strictly limited to eating from the cafeteria. If it was closed or there was an issue with her meal card, she was out of luck for food.

During the summers, she stayed with friends on their couch, in shelters or called helplines — that often directed her to other helplines that directed her back to her original call.

Eventually she ran out of options, at least in New Hampshire. So she decided to leave.

“Whenever I talk to people about, like, ‘Hey, I have this friend I met on the internet who I’m moving to in Pennsylvania,’ they were like, ‘Hey, Celene, is that a good idea?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s the only option I’ve got.’ ” she said.

Some schools are taking steps to help students in similar situations. The state health department says NHTI, the community college in Concord, is creating a single point of contact that can assist students with housing resources.

At UNH, an on-campus resource center called Waysmeet has a food pantry that has housing space for students who don’t have anywhere else to go. They provide drum circles and have robust options for food, including dry goods, baked breads and refrigerated items.

A Waysmeet representative said that the center sees not just undergrads but also masters and Ph.D. students who are seeking housing. With the heavy course loads, many are limited in how much they can earn financially outside of classwork.

Harris would like to see more schools set up campus food pantries or similar resources or provide designated administrators specifically to help unhoused students. They also need to make sure students know what resources are available.

“I didn’t get any support or anything, nothing from the school, from the university system,” Harris said. “Nobody checked up. Nobody. There was just nothing. Nothing.”

Today, Harris is continuing to pursue her education. She’s finishing up her masters degree in criminal studies, and once she’s finished her maternity leave — she just had a baby — she will be pursuing work in her field.

Meanwhile, Johns-Thomas is attending college in Pennsylvania. Her life there is providing the stability she needs, and she says she’s learning to live outside of stress that came with not having her own place.

But when she thinks back on her time on campus in New Hampshire, she’s still frustrated.

“I could talk about how difficult everything is and how difficult all that was and how that’s heartbreaking and wrenching and sad, but that’s not how I’m feeling,” Johns-Thomas said.

“I’m just feeling sort of mad at the fact that I could have gotten help. I could have. There were the systems in place. There are the big, old organizations that were supposedly there to help me, and they didn’t.”

Both Harris and Johns-Thomas said college homelessness doesn’t look one particular way. That can mean there are so many ways students can fall in the gaps or be overlooked. Journeys might not be linear nor traditional.

Their stories might be something you’ve heard before, but both say that unless you’ve gone through it, you can learn about it but you don’t really know what it’s like.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit

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