In 2020, Nathan Swider admits he was “in a really bad spot.”
He was 20 years old, struggling with autism but “still getting through” his second year at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) while living with and taking care of his aging father. Then, an altercation with his father, who has advanced dementia, got physical and Mr. Swider was kicked out of his home.
“This was hard because I still had to manage the home, my father’s medication, his appointments, his finances while not being able to physically live there and not having an income,” Mr. Swider recalled.
The situation may sound extreme, but NSCC counsellor Lisa Mader said students like Mr. Swider are finding themselves homeless for a range of reasons.
“Maybe there was a flood, or maybe their roommate is dealing with mental-health issues and they are feeling unsafe,” Ms. Mader said. “Maybe they are living with their parents and suddenly it is unsafe at home, or they are in a domestic violence situation. One of our students was sleeping on a park bench.”
Factor in a tight housing market and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ms. Mader said the problem is worsening. However, gauging exact numbers on student homelessness is difficult because, she said, so much of it is hidden. “But there’s more than we think.”
Research shared with University Affairs by Eric Weissman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick at least 110,000 students across Canada are experiencing some form of homelessness. And many postsecondary institutions across the country are trying to help.
In Mr. Swider’s case, an emergency housing program piloted by Ms. Mader at NSCC provided him with a temporary place to stay and allowed him to continue his studies at the college. The program – now in its third year – initially offered accommodation of up to 30 days in a safe, confidential location, as well as money for food and transportation and ongoing check-ins from the college’s housing team. “That apartment was rarely empty,” Ms. Mader noted. NSCC now partners with other postsecondary institutions in Halifax, plus local hotels and motels for supplementary emergency housing.
Earlier this year, the student housing waitlist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver reached a record high of 8,000 students. In response, its student union, the Alma Mater Society (AMS) developed an Emergency Housing Toolkit. While acknowledging “emergency housing is a short-term, Band-Aid response to this crisis,” the toolkit provides an extensive list of housing resources and contact information on campus and in the community.
“This is a pressing issue for a lot of students,” said Dana Turdy, vice-president, academic and university affairs, for AMS. “Metro Vancouver has one of the lowest vacancy rates in Canada and one of the highest monthly rental rates. This has created a horrible, concerning atmosphere for students.”
She noted some students are paying more than half their monthly income for rent, leaving very little for other essentials. In its 2022 Academic Experience Survey, three out of five students (or 60 per cent of respondents) said high housing costs was one of the main reasons they experienced food insecurity.
In the past 12 years, the university has increased campus housing options so that it now offers more than 15,000 beds between its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses. “That’s an investment of about half a billion dollars in more student housing,” said Andrew Parr, UBC associate vice-president, student housing and community services. “But the demand for housing has grown at a much faster pace than our ability to grow.”
Mr. Parr said UBC is lucky to be able to “borrow from itself” by using portions of its endowment funds to invest in student housing. But most universities struggle to invest in student housing and he said more help is needed at the provincial and federal levels to fix this crisis.
“If universities were able to invest in student housing, it supports the university, but it also supports the broader community because it pulls students out of the general marketplace and allows those units to be filled by others,” he said. “Access to low-cost borrowing is very difficult for student housing. Programs at the provincial and federal level…would be very, very helpful.”
Meanwhile McGill University’s scholarships and student aid office said it’s experiencing an unprecedented number of requests and for larger amounts of money, according to media relations spokesperson Katherine Gombay.
In an email, Ms. Gombay said the university recognizes the pandemic and the rising cost of living have affected many people financially and has directed additional resources to increase financial aid. She also said McGill has a range of emergency financial supports available for students experiencing an immediate financial need which “may be related to food insecurity, inadequate winter clothing, or an urgent need to find new housing due to unexpected events.”
Ms. Gombay said the office also works with a range of partners across the university, including wellness advisers in residences and faculties as well as varsity coaches, to ensure students are informed that emergency funds are available. “These funds can typically be leveraged to provide same-day or next-day support to students facing serious and immediate financial hardship,” she added.
Back in Halifax, Mr. Swider credits NSCC’s emergency housing program with literally saving his life.
“Had I not had that safe housing, my whole academic career and my life would have ended,” he said. He graduated from his first program at NSCC and is now studying advanced cybersecurity at the college. He has reunited with his father and is working with the college’s student association to advocate for improvements to student housing.
“For those who are most vulnerable, it’s super important that we have supports there,” he said. “Even for those who aren’t at risk, having subsidized housing would be a great improvement to student life.”