Homeless in College
Her T-shirt says Put Your Best Foot Forward above a picture of one stick figure kicking another in the butt. This pretty well sums up the personality of Jennifer Lohss, whose college story starts out normally enough.
Lohss, a 27-year-old ASU freshman majoring in Social Work with a minor Criminal Justice, was born and raised in Baltimore and moved to Arizona in 2009. Like many students, her busy days are Tuesdays and Thursdays, so she has to meet on a Monday at Civic Space Park near Downtown campus to talk.
She also gets straight A's, and is proud of it.
“Maybe some people are happy with B's, or C's, or D’s,” she says. “But not me. If I’m getting an A-minus, it’s not good enough.”
Though she is usually good-natured to the point of silliness, Lohss quickly becomes passionate — even vehement — when talking about the issues she cares about.
For example, to her, going to college is a privilege, a payoff for years of perseverance.
She says it was shocking to hear some of the other students in her orientation talk about their reasons for going to ASU: They “got stuck” in Arizona. Their parents paid for them to go here. ASU is a “party school,” and has a good football team.
These reasons all seemed trivial and misled to Lohss. Her voice rises, gaining an intensity and edge: “You go to school to get something out of it. Otherwise, you’re just back in high school!”
Lohss begins to explain further, but gets interrupted when a homeless woman asks to borrow her phone. She hands it over without question, just a warning about battery life. She coughs, and then continues telling her life story in her normal, bubbly voice.
“People say to me, What? You’re homeless?! You don’t look homeless. And I’m like, Yeah, thanks! That’s what I’m going for!”
The homeless woman, it turns out, was one of her best friends. Lohss finishes a Maverick cigarette, but says the label on the box doesn’t matter — as long as they’re full-bodied cigs.
“I don’t want to be ‘That Homeless Girl,’” she adds simply, crushing the filter into the ground with the heel of her worn shoe.
Here, Jennifer Lohss begins to tell the less obvious part of her story, the portion of the iceberg below the water.
Lohss says she always got high marks and enjoyed classes in high school, but she fought constantly with her parents and struggled with depression. After graduating, she moved to New Jersey to be with her grandmother and get a job. Lohss says she applied for Coast Guard — and tested well enough to get in — but had to move back to Pennsylvania before getting accepted. She also went to EMT school, but had to drop out due to money issues.
In the end, Lohss says she settled for whatever jobs were available, “trying to make money, trying to survive.” The result was three kids, two failed marriages, and in 2010, life on the streets in Phoenix.
Some social work students do internships at places such as Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), a non-profit that provides shelter and social services to the Valley’s homeless, to gain real world experience.
On the other hand, Lohss lived at CASS in the winter of 2010, because “I used to be a major pothead.” When she tried to use on CASS grounds, and was kicked out for 10 days, she says she decided not to go back: “It scared the living bejesus out of me just to be there.” The human menagerie there was bound to cause conflict and frustration, and Lohss says she didn’t want to be living in a shelter to begin with.
So, she decided to switch to “urban camping,” or living and sleeping on the streets and in abandoned buildings either because one cannot get into a shelter, or chooses not to.
Lohss says she lives off and on with a small community of other homeless individuals who bond and support one another much like a family. None were willing or able to be interviewed for this story, but Lohss talks of three-hour debates about the issues in her classes that last long into the night.
But her first year of college has been far from the party many freshmen experience.
This semester has also found Lohss living at her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s house, followed by stints with a woman with a crack cocaine addiction and a friend who she found out was “a pill popper.”
Eventually she landed at Watkins Overflow, a “last-resort” shelter in downtown Phoenix for single women and families to stay when all other shelters are full.
Lohss decided to leave the shelter circuit again after she says some money and possessions were stolen, and found herself back on the streets at the beginning of October. She took a week off school to cope, and returned to classes in mid-October.
Lohss has to overcome hardships like these every day, says Genevieve Garcia, a friend who met her at Watkins Overflow upon becoming homeless a couple months ago and decided to leave the shelter together at the risk of living on the streets.
“It just floored me that someone who is homeless would still be going to college and getting an A average,” she says. “There was never a time she wasn’t studying, or never a time when she came home early. She busts her ass. She’s earned every step of the way.”
Garcia, 33, grew up and worked in Denver before coming to Arizona several years ago. She describes her friend as a warm-hearted, kind and sharing person, “but [Lohss] definitely has a streak in her that doesn’t put up with anybody’s crap.” Lohss also has a tendency to put others above herself, Garcia says, so Garcia has used her most recent settlement check to rent a hotel room for the week and buy Lohss a bus pass to get to school and church.
“There have been some times where she’s been like, ‘I can’t do this any more. I’m quitting.’ And we’re all, ‘Like hell you are. You did not work this hard to give up just ‘cause you had a bad day.’”
So far, Lohss has listened every time. But the turbulence in her personal life does seem to be taking its toll; her round face is visibly tired as she talks.
“My worst thing is not being able to take a shower everyday. Not being able to use the bathroom when you need to. Basic needs that just aren’t met,” Lohss says. “It’s real. It’s real, in-your-face, all the time.”
She expected things to be different in college — more stable. Lohss is trying to get custody over her 17-month-old daughter, but can’t given her present circumstances.
“I was hoping to be in my own apartment by now, and …” her voice trails off, as her bright, searching eyes scan the perimeter from behind thin-rimmed glasses.
This perhaps makes her choice to pursue a college education all the more remarkable. To Lohss, things had just reached a tipping point this year.
“In my life, I’ve just had so many failures,” she says. “I need to do something for me.”
Lohss decided school was the best option, so she completed her FAFSA in May before picking out a school. While looking for places to apply, a student interning at Lodestar Day Resource Center (LDRC), a job and education services center for the homeless located next to CASS, told her about ASU’s social work program.
The location, quality and access of ASU convinced Lohss to apply here; she no longer remembers the girl’s name, but says that conversation helped her make the leap to be a Sun Devil.
Newly motivated, Lohss went online and did paperwork, and got LDRC to pay enrollment fees. For weeks after, “I was checking MyASU constantly,” she says. “I was literally checking it five times a day. I actually found out before I got [the acceptance letter] in the mail.”
Lohss says she screamed for joy when she was accepted into ASU, and that a social worker at LDRC got on the PA system and announced her acceptance to the entire building.
“It was a major turning point for me,” she says. “It was like, ‘Yes, I finally got something.’”
In terms of intelligence and commitment, Lohss clearly deserves to be in college. At least, that is what some of her peers at ASU believe.
“She’s really smart. I can tell you that,” says Prandera Sahiti, 22-year-old criminal justice senior. “Let’s just say … she helps us a lot [in our study group].”
Stacy Timmerman, 35-year-old social work junior, explains that she and Sahiti met Lohss in their politics and government class this semester. They ran into each other at lunch time one day, made fast friends, and formed a study group trio on the spot.
It wasn’t until later, when the three became better friends, that they realized Lohss slept in shelters and abandoned buildings instead of her own bed. Timmerman says they’ve tried to be supportive — even buying her new shoes once as a gift — but the experience has left them feeling strange and helpless at times. Ultimately, both say they’ve decided the best option is to just continue treating Lohss like the good friend she is.
“I mean, [Lohss] seems perfectly like any other student. Honestly, if she hadn’t have told us, I would have no idea that she was homeless,” Sahiti says. “I admire her a lot, for coming to school with everything going on.”
Timmerman calls Lohss a “perfectionist” about school and grades, and “a talker” in class, but says her wit and intelligence are what make her future look so bright.
“I think she’s going to make a damn good social worker. She’s going to be one of the best, because she’s been through it all!” Timmerman says of Lohss. “She’s probably going to be my boss one day, and that would be fine with me.”
Back in Civic Space Park, Lohss says she sometimes feels a distance from other ASU students. In part, it’s because she sets herself apart, to avoid explaining her life story to a series of classmates who won’t understand.
The people who she does tell are surprised that she is doing so well in school. She has even been told that if they were in her shoes, they would have quit long ago.
“I don’t have that option,” Lohss says. “I will choose to take the higher road. So I work as hard as I can, make sure I get my A’s, because when I see the A’s, I know I did something right.”
Lohss says she’s been asked if she feels cheated, and still does not quite know how to answer. She views her situation as a trade-off: While some of her classmates were able to just coast into college, they also don’t have her well of real-life knowledge to draw from.
“I wish I would have gotten into school sooner. Absolutely. But at the same point, maybe this is how it was supposed to be,” Lohss says. “I feel that, especially for my major, it’s kind of important that this happened the way it did.”
She knows her coursework will continue to grow in amount and difficulty after her freshman year. But she is ready for the challenge, because school is a form of therapy for her right now.
“When I’m actually in classes, all the stress from outside is just put on the back burner, because it matters to me that much,” she says. “I’m willing to jump through the hoops. I’m willing to jump through the fire to make sure I succeed. Because this is probably going to be one of my biggest accomplishments.”
And with several homeless people napping on the grass to her right, ASU downtown campus to her left, she lets loose a torrent of her trademark laugh through Civic Space Park.
“I might as well get the degree — I already have the experience to go with it.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @TheRabens
----------------More on homelessness in the Valley, and around the country:
A “homeless” person is defined by the U.S. government as one who “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.” Data on homeless populations (both national and local) is scattered, new, incomplete – yet seems to indicate the problem is worse than most policy makers thought, and getting worse.
- Between 1.6 million and 3.5 million Americans experience being homeless each year, depending on the source. Homelessness is very hard to track, because about 3/7 of homeless people don’t utilize shelters or services.
- Approximately 39 percent of homeless are under 18 years old, and nearly half of homeless children are 5 years old or younger. Both those rates are higher than the national average.
- Overall estimate: 1.1% of Americans, and 2.2% of children, are homeless each year.
- Homelessness among military veterans is also an issue. In 2009, there were more than 100,000 homeless vets, 70% of whom had substance abuse problems. Homeless vets are also more likely to have mental illness issues and sleep unsheltered.
- Nationwide, males and African-Americans are much more likely to be homeless than any other group. From my experience, the same is true in Phoenix.
Though the nature of this data makes it hard to say how dire the Valley’s situation is compared to anywhere else, Steve Conrad, treasurer of Lodestar Day Resource Center (LDRC), suggests Phoenix has an abnormally high homeless population. More than 5,200 homeless individuals get mail at the LDRC post office, he says, meaning that there are probably at least 8,000 homeless adults in the Valley at any time.
Irene Agustin, director of fund development for Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), says that last year their shelters provided temporary housing to 3,809 people, nearly three-fourths of them men.
But, she admits, “It’s difficult to accurately assess the number of homeless [persons].”
It also seems difficult to assess what services and treatment to offer the homeless, and whether the homeless themselves the shelters improve their lives.
An organization like CASS can only direct to resources and encourage the homeless (“clients,” as they’re called there) to use them, Agustin says. The point of the shelter is to get clients to a place where they don’t need shelters any more.
By providing a place to sleep, clothing and food, Agustin says CASS hopes to “stabilize their situation,” and in doing that, it helps them plan their own next steps: “When you’re worried about where to sleep, and how to eat, it’s hard to think about anything else.”
This is a frustrating task, Agustin says, especially with the rise in people the past few years of experiencing homelessness for first time.
“Once they get here, they basically have hit rock bottom: They have no place to go to, they have no support networks,” she says. “When you’re worried about where to sleep, and how to eat, it’s hard to think about anything else.”
Agustin says the situation of someone like Jennifer Lohss is rare, where a person is pursuing higher education while homeless. But that may change as the homelessness rates of youth aged 18 to 25 and families with children rise. As with most other cases, she says their first step would be to help such a client find housing, “because the last thing we want is for that student to drop out of school because they’re homeless.”
In the end, Agustin acknowledges some of the problems brought up by some of the homeless individuals interviewed for this story: some people do slip through the cracks without receiving the services they need, and the CASS campus has “a reputation” for being unsafe. She says with such a diverse population, all CASS can do is ask for clients to complain if they have a problem, and respond to those complaints.
“We do want to help you,” Agustin says. “But if you feel you don’t want to come here because it’s unsafe, then you have to tell us that.”
Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
U.S. Census Bureau