By Deborah Bostock-Kelley
It’s 4pm on a Friday. You’re an honors student with a 4.0 GPA in community college, excited to finish a challenging class and start your weekend. You pick up your backpack, jump in your car, hit the drive-through, and head to your apartment. You throw down your keys, flip off your shoes, tell Alexa to turn on the TV, and rummage through your refrigerator for something to drink. You grab a Perrier and relax on the couch, your pet cat nestled on your lap. It’s a check-Instagram-on-your-cell-phone-and-Netflix- and-chill kind of night.
Like the worst type of choose-your-own-adventure, here are a few other scenarios not often thought about:
It’s 4pm on a Friday. You’re an honors student with a 4.0 GPA in community college, wishing class was longer. You pick up your backpack and head to the campus food pantry – if there is one.
A. You bring your meal to your car, wondering where you are going to park your home for the night.
B. You wish you had a car, and call your friends, wondering who might have a couch available for “couch surfing.”
C. You wish you had a car, and you call your friends, but no one answers. You wonder what shelter might have a cot available.
D. You wish you had a car, and you call the shelters, but they are full. You wonder where you’ll sleep, what weather to expect, and if you’ll be safe outside again tonight.
Homeless college students seem like an oxymoron. If they have the means to be in college, how can they not have a home?
Sometimes parents are deceased or out of the picture or can’t provide financial support to their children. Sometimes LGBTQ children are disowned for their sexual orientation.
It’s an epidemic across the country. In 2018, it was polled that seventeen percent of students experienced homelessness during their years in community college.
While enrolled in St Petersburg College, Lisa Manners, founder of The Manners Housing Foundation, was deeply involved in her school through student government and other organizations. Having personally experienced “couch surfing,” she was inspired to pay it forward after reading an eye-opening article on student homelessness in the school paper by former student Deniann Grant.
“Everything she said back in 2011 is still applicable now. Students are just looking for a place to do their homework, take a shower, a safe place to sleep at night, and not have to worry where their car is parked,” she said. “It’s simple things we take for granted every day that a student with a 4.0 is experiencing.”
Lisa gave an example of a young man in her honors classes who got sick his last semester, lost his job, and with no income, lost his apartment, so he lived in his car. Unlike universities with campus housing, community colleges have no safety net for students in these unforeseen circumstances.
“I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a program available for someone with a 4.0, who’s volunteering in the community, involved in honors college, and in a club. I knew right then and there, those would be my parameters for my foundation.”
Lisa reached out to school president (then vice-president) Dr. Tonjua Williams, who helped formulate the concept of The Manners Housing Foundation, a 501c(3) nonprofit that would help prevent student homelessness.
Like a frat house, but with a much more serious role, students would have to meet her stringent qualification criteria to live in the foundation’s temporary housing.
Since receiving their nonprofit licensing in July 2019, Lisa and her staff have been fundraising to enable the foundation to provide housing for homeless college students for a maximum of six semesters in a lifetime, including summer semesters (a maximum of 24 months in a lifetime). The plan also includes a free laundry facility on-site, financial counseling three times per semester, and weekly check-ins with a Mentor, and opportunities to build a portfolio to apply to universities or employment.
“The qualifying student has to fill out an application and be currently enrolled in good standing in a community college for 9 credits with a 2.0 GPA. He has to be a part of a club. He has to volunteer in the community or have a job or an internship 25 hours a week. We will house him for 1 semester and then he can reapply,” explained Lisa. “Finally, he has to write an essay on the topic of why he needs help.”
The Manners Housing Foundation has partnered with several local businesses to collect change to help towards their goal of building housing.
“We’re at square one right now. This is the little fundraiser that helped us to get the 501c(3). Every little bit helps while we’re waiting for grants to come back and funding to come in.”
Currently, Lisa and her staff help students pay for community college applications fees, provide a day or two paid housing in local motels and bed and breakfasts. They’ve recently opened a helpline to direct students to local shelters and offer information for emergency housing and other critical social services in Pinellas County, Hillsborough County and the surrounding Tampa Bay Area.
Lisa wants to start with temporary housing for her alma mater St Peterburg College, but after presenting her idea in front of all the community colleges at the Honor College Collegiate Research Conference, she discovered the problem was not limited to her community college.
“After the presentation and the introduction of her foundation, I was approached by everybody saying, ‘hey, we have a problem.’ Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Hernando – they all were like ‘can you bring your concept here?’”
Lisa now has the ultimate and longterm goal of building two homes near a bus route or community college campus in every city, in every state across the nation.
But a goal that colossal requires community support and enormous funds.
“The big push this year is to get our first property. We need $200K to run it for two years,” she said. “I can’t find one student who will admit to being homeless. There’s almost a sense of shame about being homeless and going to school. You will never recognize a homeless student. You’ll never know he’s homeless unless you see him sleeping in the park. I want to give him a safe place to get back on his feet. If we can get the property for a 6-bedroom house, I can house 11 eleven students. I can make a dent. Everyone has seen Homeless to Harvard. This is a real problem, and I want to be a solution.”
To learn more about The Manners Housing Foundation, to volunteer, or to make a donation, visit https://mannershousing.org. To reach the helpline, call 727-314-3527.