Taking on Student Homelessness: Lauren Cantrell

A couple minutes drive from one of the largest universities in the country, and you arrive to what many deem a standard Florida strip mall. But, a look beyond the colorful walls and plentiful parking, will take you to a unique craft coffee shop known, as Vespr. Once you enter, academics aspiring and established alike,  claim their tables in this modern oasis. Sitting at the windowed bar, Lauren Cantrell, a Jacksonville native, was waiting for me. A mutual friend had identified her as the local millennial who was working to improve the student homelessness issue. Simultaneously working as an AmeriCorps Vista and obtaining her Master’s in Public Administration and Non Profit Management, Lauren has been developing her expertise in poverty alleviation.

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Lauren Cantrell on Graduation Day Photo Credit: Lauren Cantrell

But, what does student homelessness even look like? While the stereotype dictates an image of living on the street and attending classes, homeless students are typically those who are couch surfing, living out of their cars, or have some other sort of temporary unreliable housing. Usually students become homeless in the wake of something like a car accident or medical emergency for students who survive off of loans and other college assistance that don’t have incidentals built in. Often, these students don’t build a cash cushion into their budget reducing their resilience to life’s obstacles. Usually, all these students need is access to a couple hundred dollars to make rent or pay for food.

UCF provides students in need with access to a food pantry through the Knights helping Knights fund, and there were over 11,000 visits to the Knights Helping Knights pantry during the 2013-2014 academic year.

Dealing with this population is tricky, due mostly to a variety of stigmas. First, understanding what student homelessness is and knowing how to get assistance. Second, the belief that if students can get to college, then they will be fully capable to stay there. Third, as a  student the need to fit in can often delay asking for assistance. Although a nationwide problem, research on the topic has been minimal creating a challenge to identify the needs of this population. However, social media has provided the platform to share these stories and bring awareness of the issue.

While most professionals working with homelessness point to specific successes, Lauren’s most successful moment took place when she was fundraising for the Covenant House, a non profit that provides “shelter and services for youth or at-risk youth.” While tabling outside of Burger 21 in the UCF area, a gentleman approached Lauren and explained that he had received his GED from Covenant House many years ago. What struck Lauren most was how this man was a living testament that people can make their way out of homelessness, they just need a little help. “When you are working behind the scenes, you don’t really get a chance to see the direct impact you are having. So when you get the chance to talk to someone who is directly benefiting from the services you are providing, it is really rewarding.”
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Photo Credit: Lauren Cantrell (Center)
If you are interested in learning more about this issue or find resources check out this article from CNN Money. Lauren and I discussed the need for financial literacy courses in colleges and universities across the country. What other ways could help address this issue?

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