Inside the Reality of Being Homeless and in College
On a frigid seven-degree night last year, Brooke Evans, 23, entered the University of Wisconsin library in Madison, stomping her feet in her worn Adidas to get the feeling in her toes back. She made a beeline to room 1250, grabbed a bunch of magazines, Glamour included, and when no one was looking, tore out the perfume samples—Dior, Calvin Klein, Jimmy Choo. For a few brief moments, the philosophy and neurobiology student imagined herself like the women in those pictures or a carefree Wisconsin Badgers fan…Brooke without all the mess in her life. And then she stashed the pages in her knapsack and headed out to her car. She and her cat, Kiki, would spend the night there.Evans was homeless. She has been, on and off, for six years—ever since she started college.
Her story is not all that rare. True, most students who’ve seen her walk the quad with her Gray’s Anatomy and The Confessions of St. Augustine don’t know that she often couldn’t shower, had to rub her sweatshirt with those magazine swatches, and subsisted on cans of cold cream-of-mushroom soup from the city food bank. But homelessness on college campuses is real, and on the rise. More than 59,000 applicants for federal aid identified as homeless in the 2015 school year, nearly double those who did in 2009. And experts say that the actual number is much larger. Two recent studies—one of the California State University system and the other of community colleges nationwide—found that more than one in 10 students are dealing with some kind of homelessness. The reasons are complicated. Some students don’t know aid is available or how to apply for it. And aid itself, research shows, often falls short, because at most public four-year institutions, it’s not keeping up with tuition increases or living expenses. “Also, more low-income students are now going to college, in part because they know they need a degree to get a good job,” says Sandy Baum, who has analyzed tuition and aid trends for the College Board. That’s a good thing, but it means “more people are financially vulnerable,” she says.
Like Evans, many of these young women and men have little to no family support. But Evans refuses to give up. “I still remember being pulled aside in kindergarten and told I’d gotten into the gifted program and thinking, Oh my God, no matter how fat and poor or ‘white trash’ I am, I will always be smart—I might be able to get out of here,” she says. “If college is only for people who can afford it, then we’re only reproducing the same inequalities we’re supposed to be equalizing by getting an education.”
“I wasn’t welcome back home”
Evans’ mother (who asked Glamour not to use her name) is the first to admit she hasn’t been there for her daughter all the time. She struggled with drinking until Evans was about 12. “I had the disease of alcoholism,” she says, “and it was all about me. Brooke was in my way. I constantly looked at my watch as she talked; I didn’t want to hear her. I wasn’t interested in her or her ideas.” Evans says her father left when she was six (“the best thing that ever happened”), which meant she and her two older brothers often ate fried hamburger buns with sugar for dinner, “to make it seem fancy,” while their mom worked in a foundry, making just $61 a month above the federal poverty level. Evans, who by age 13 had started working after school to help make ends meet, always assumed she’d go to college. So at 18, when the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse accepted her, she drove 200 miles from Waukesha only to discover that, even at an affordable state school, she’d need at least $13,500 a year to cover tuition and room and board. “I never thought about how I was going to pay for it,” she says. “It was such a small world where I came from. I didn’t know to apply for financial aid or scholarships, and ended up taking out loans.”
In La Crosse she got jobs—at a home-improvement chain, a food co-op, a disability center—to cover her car costs, phone service, and health insurance. But when the dorms closed at Thanksgiving, she had nowhere to go. Too ashamed to tell friends, she got through that break by staying with acquaintances from church, but when school ended for the summer, it was even tougher. “My mom had made it clear I wasn’t welcome back home,” says Evans. One night she drove to a homeless shelter but parked in the far corner of the lot. “I couldn’t make myself go inside,” she says. So she climbed in the backseat of her 2000 Chrysler Sebring and finally fell asleep—something she would get very used to. “I remember washing under my arms in the public library once when a mother with her little girl walked in and looked at me,” she says. “I wanted to explain myself, but I couldn’t speak. I realized I was the epitome of everything she didn’t want for her daughter.” Looking back, Evans’ mother says, “I probably knew Brooke was going to live in her car. I worried about her safety. But I didn’t know how to talk to her. I have a lot of regrets about that.”
“I went downhill really fast”
What kept Evans going was her studies, and after her sophomore year, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison in search of a better academic fit. By then she knew to apply for financial aid, but the math got uglier: In the fall of 2012, Evans received a combination of work-study and grants totaling $6,367; her tuition was $5,193. The roughly $1,174 remaining had to pay for food, housing, utilities, car costs, health supplies, phone and Internet service, laundry, textbooks, and lab fees, but in Madison the $1,174 would barely cover a studio apartment for one month.
Couch-surfing at first, Evans looked for a job but was unsuccessful. What she did find, not far from campus, was Kiki, a tiny stray like herself. “I tried to give her away, but I quickly realized I loved her,” she says. After a while she started sneaking Kiki into the library bathroom in her knapsack during the day. There she’d wedge herself into the tiled corner of the disability stall, where others couldn’t see her, and doze a bit. At night she’d be back in her Sebring, the trunk filled with food from the city pantry. “I had a couple of blankets—one quilted by the ladies at church back home,” she says. “Kiki would climb on my chest, and we’d wrap ourselves up like a burrito in the back. Then, on my high school laptop, I’d pull up a YouTube video of a crackling fireplace to put my mind in a warm place and try to make myself feel normal.”
Evans had nightmares about vermin, but the Sebring was her only haven: “My car became my family. It became like a mom,” she says. “If I stayed somewhere else, I would worry about her.”
Her studies piled up, as did her depression and anxiety. Evans says that when she approached counselors at the school about her situation, they suggested she didn’t belong there, that maybe she should come back when she could pay. “I would imagine that Brooke did meet some resistance,” says UW–Madison’s dean of students, Lori Berquam. “None of us knew homelessness was that much of an issue then. And also, maybe there was the school pride of ‘Madison is doing really well, and that’s not a problem on our campus.’ ” It’s a common blind spot, according to John B. King, U.S. Secretary of Education. “Unfortunately many institutions do not appreciate the number of students they have who are homeless or food insecure,” he says.
Evans fell to a new low on May 19, 2013, when the school dropped her because of her failing grades; she would not be able to reapply for a year. “My world,” she says, “was in shambles.”
“To be a dropout? You’ve lost your only shot”
That next year Evans hit the skids. She donated plasma for cash, and “I had sex with men who said I could sleep on their couch,” she admits, “which I’m so angry at myself for now, but when you’re that desperate, you don’t make the best decisions.” Finally, after she posted on Facebook that she needed a place to stay, one of her freshman professors, Joseph Van Oss, saw her pleas and offered his home in La Crosse. “It was so calm,” says Evans. “It felt like the twilight zone. I felt safe for the first time. And that’s when I decided to become an activist.”
On May 14, 2014, she went back to UW–Madison to reapply, armed with a huge stack of papers. “By the grace of something, they readmitted me,” she says. “I’m gonna cry, just remembering it. It’s hard to be homeless in college. But to be homeless as a dropout? Then you’ve lost your one opportunity. Your only shot. Getting readmitted was probably the most beautiful moment in my whole life.”
At school again, still living in her car, she started speaking out about her homelessness and writing for the college newspaper under a pseudonym. Then, in November 2014, at a student government meeting where members were debating funding a campus pantry she had proposed, she realized she had to go public. “The comments were so negative,” she says. “I knew I had to get over my pride or this project would fail.” At the next meeting, before the final vote, she stood up and revealed that she was the person behind all the articles. “My story just poured out,” she recalls. “It was so cathartic. After I finished, people came up to hug me. And they voted yes to fund the project.”
The pantry opened this year, and Evans has since spoken both at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Among her many projects: a state bill requiring college cafeterias to accept food stamps and a plan to offer free mailboxes to UW–Madison students without an address. “On a national level Brooke has really been a leader,” says UW–Madison’s Berquam. “And on a UW level, she has been beyond a leader.” Evans’ mother, now back in her daughter’s life (both have worked to make that happen), says, “I am so proud of her.”
But personally, Evans says, “I’m not out of the woods.” Although she now has an apartment, she’s worried about September’s rent and has nearly $70,000 in student loans. Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, stresses the psychological toll for someone like Evans: “If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your childhood—and lived not knowing where you’re sleeping or where your next meal is coming from—there’s a deep fear and instability that always stays with you.”
This spring, when Glamour visited, Evans took us to her Sebring, now parked in an alley. She hesitated before opening the door and crawling into the backseat. And then, for a long time, she sobbed. “No one,” she said, “has ever been inside.”
She’s taking things one day at a time as she focuses on getting her bachelor of arts degree next May. “I’ve been living in such crisis mode I’m not sure what the future really holds,” she says. “But I will continue to do this work so people like me can say, ‘I belong here.’ I’m not invisible. I’ve always been looking for my voice, and I think I’ve found it now.”