Authors: Jennifer Schneider, Student Ombuds and Thomas Miller, Associate Professor

The University of South Florida (USF) is enhancing its services to students who are currently or have been homeless. Identification and outreach, tailored wellness coaching, a website specific to this population, year-round housing opportunities, and the redesign of a process by which homeless students can receive a tuition waiver are all components of our approach to fostering the success of these high-priority USF students.

1. Identification and Outreach 

Students experiencing homelessness at USF are identified in a number of ways. Some students are identified based on their responses to the FAFSA questions on homelessness. The Financial Aid Department provides the list of students to a wellness coach on campus, who then reaches out to each one of the students by email and/or phone, provides a single point of contact, and shares resources that may be helpful. The Director of Student Outreach and Support also has been authorized by the University to determine if a student is homeless. Case managers in that office can authorize the Florida tuition waiver for homeless students, and also provide information to students regarding other institutional and community resources. Finally, some students may self-disclose that they are homeless to a staff or faculty member, after which they will be directed towards appropriate resources. 

In an effort to support students who have not disclosed their circumstances, or for new or prospective students, a webpage is being developed that will provide information about campus resources specifically for students who are or have been homeless. Resources include, but are not limited to, Financial Aid, the Cashier’s Office, the Office of the Registrar, Student Outreach and Support, the Student Ombuds Office, the Counseling Center, the Food Pantry, and other services. Specific points of contact for departments that have transactional relationships with students will be identified so that students can feel more secure in seeking support in those offices. USF is a very large institution with over 50,000 students and 9,000 employees, so providing homeless students with actual names of staff members who understand the laws, policies, and nuances of homelessness in Florida seems prudent. Each department head helped to identify the person who would be best suited to serve in this capacity. 

2. Coaching

Success and Wellness Coaching is a personalized process that empowers students to achieve their self-determined goals related to their personal, emotional, social and academic success. Coaches work with individuals and groups in a student-centered process to facilitate and empower the student to develop and achieve self-determined goals related to health and wellness. They assist students to use their insight, personal strengths and resources, goal setting, action steps and accountability toward healthy lifestyle change. Specific wellness coaches have been identified to support the unique wellness needs of students who are homeless. 

Coaches are trained to personalize the coaching process specifically to each student, based on their goals, agenda, and values, by exploring multiple dimensions of wellness, including academics, health, family, friends, personal growth, recreation, and finances. While health and wellness coaches do not diagnose conditions, prescribe treatments, or provide psychological therapeutic interventions, they may provide guidance, referrals, and suggest additional resources to help students receive the support needed in order to accomplish their individual goals and achieve their highest level of success and well-being. This is especially helpful to students who are homeless. Students who complete coaching often feel empowered and motivated to continue moving towards their goals independently. 

The amount and frequency of coaching sessions are based on the student’s preference — typically a minimum of three coaching sessions. Sessions usually start out weekly, then if the student prefers can occur bi-weekly or monthly. Sessions are one-on-one and can take place in person on USF’s campus, through video call, or on the phone. 

3. Year-Round Housing

Historically, the University of South Florida has closed its residence halls between semesters, leaving students who are homeless to find alternative arrangements, many of which may be unsafe and/or unstable. Beginning in Fall 2019, students who are homeless will be able to stay on campus year-round. USF Housing staff also works to ensure that students in need are able to occupy the more affordable options on campus.

4. Tuition Waiver

The State of Florida offers a tuition waiver to students who are homeless. Each institution in the State is able to craft its own process for determining homelessness and establishing specific criteria to determine who is able to benefit from the waiver. Some students enter USF with McKinney-Vento documentation from their high school, which automatically activates the State waiver. Those without McKinney-Vento documentation from their high school, or those whose McKinney-Vento documentation has expired (it is only valid for one year), must acquire signed documentation from a qualified case manager (either from a homeless shelter or a K-12 liaison to certify their homelessness in order for them to get the waiver. Recently, Case Managers in the Office of Student Outreach and Support have been appointed as qualified sources to provide this documentation following assessment. Those case managers serve as single points of contact for homeless students, providing additional information on community resources and support when students encounter challenging issues on campus.

Concluding Thoughts

The work of USF to better serve students who are homeless and housing insecure is just beginning. We recognize that these students may need additional support, and we are developing ways to better deliver it. We have a large population of students who come to us from poverty and do not have the resources that many other students do. We are learning more about these students, and their success is extremely important to us.  USF’s senior leaders often insist that “every USF student can succeed when given the opportunity to do so.” The efforts we’ve described are representative of our commitment to providing such opportunities.

We are learning more about these students, and their success is extremely important to us.  USF’s senior leaders often insist that “every USF student can succeed when given the opportunity to do so.”

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