Hunger and Homelessness Support Network pushes to raise awareness about student struggles

In the spring of 2018, two UAA professors sent a survey to 3,000 randomly-chosen, degree-seeking students in order to understand a pressing question: the prevalence of homelessness amongst college students at UAA.

UAA Care Team coordinator Lisa Terwilliger, HHSN Chair Kojin Tranberg, Radisha Crutchfield, and Jennifer Spencer pictured together after the event. Photo credit: Radisha Crutchfield

“What we know from that pilot survey is that homelessness does exist… and it’s happening amongst our students,” said Associate Professor and Bachelors Program Coordinator for the School of Social Work, Kathi Trawver.

Trawver has a background working on homeless-related issues both as a social worker in the Anchorage community as well as serving on the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. She connected with Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Travis Hedwig, and the two began working on how to best understand issues relating to homelessness and hunger at UAA.

In what she describes as an “epiphany” moment, Trawver first got seriously motivated to work on homelessness and hunger amongst UAA students when she attended a conference where the work of Rashida Crutchfield was being discussed.

Crutchfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at California State University Long Beach, is known for her groundbreaking research pertaining to issues of food and housing security amongst college students.

Trawver was inspired by Crutchfield’s work and motivated to start working on the issue locally.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Why are we not looking in our own backyard at our students?’” Trawver said. “I know my students experience homelessness and I know they experience hunger because they’ve told me.”

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Hedwig, who has served on the statewide Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, also had similar experiences where students had confided in him about their personal struggles.

One “fantastic student” in particular had a large impact on Hedwig, who watched them achieve success and graduate despite the obstacles they were facing.

“It got to me thinking: what kind of protective factors helped [them] succeed… and how can we identify what those things are that help students?” Hedwig said.

Hedwig feels that the university has the responsibility to help students who are dealing with issues of homelessness and hunger.

“In the face of those challenges and hardships, our students continue to show up for us… What are we doing to show up for them? What could it look like for our university to show up for them?” Hedwig said.

Hedwig and Trawver quickly realized that their work with the survey was timely with two other initiatives beginning to gain traction at UAA: the Homeless Students Coalition, led by Lisa Terwilliger and Anyon Turner of the CARE Team, and the Food Insecurity Working Group organized by Kojin Tranberg.

Kojin Tranberg, the Commuter Student Programs Coordinator for Student Life and Leadership, first noticed the presence of hunger issues amongst students at UAA in his role mentoring the Daily Den program.

The Daily Den food program offers food to students twice a day, four days a week in the Student Union Den. According to Tranberg, last year the program was able to provide over 8,000 free meals to students.

Through this process, he and his team began to notice students who were “food insecure” and relying on snacks provided by the Daily Den program to make it through the week.

Wanting to understand more about the issue, Tranberg signed himself up for a food insecurity webinar. Despite originally intending to take the webinar alone, Tranberg made a last minute decision to make the webinar publically available and invited colleagues to join.

“I thought, ‘No one’s going to show up, but sure, it can’t hurt’… I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Tranberg said.

The interest the webinar generated amongst various staff and faculty lead to the creation of the Food Insecurity Working Group in December of 2017.

Almost exactly one year later, both the Care Team’s coalition and Tranberg’s group have joined forces and united to become the Hunger and Homelessness Support Network, HHSN for short. As of Nov. 19, the HHSN, comprised of 22 staff, faculty and student members, was officially recognized by the university.

“Our mission is to develop sustainable solutions for UAA students in need of food and housing support through research, services, resource development and community partnerships,” said Tranberg.

On Nov. 29, in a somewhat “full circle” evening, the HHSN hosted Rashida Crutchfield for a lecture called “Ending the ‘Starving Student’ Narrative.”

At the event, Trawver introduced Crutchfield and explained that her guidance and mentorship had been instrumental to Trawver and Hedwig’s efforts moving forward with the next phase of their research: a larger and more comprehensive survey of the UAA student body.

In her presentation, Crutchfield covered the basics of how homelessness and hunger issues affect college students and explained that, historically speaking, college homelessness has been “sort of an afterthought” in the context of academic studies of people experiencing homelessness.

“When I started thinking about this 11 years ago, nobody was talking about it,” Crutchfield said.

Since 2014, Crutchfield has been studying homelessness amongst students across the 23 campuses and 400,000 people that make up the collective student body under the California State University system. Her work is recognized as the largest comprehensive study ever to have been conducted on hunger and homeless issues amongst college students, and she found that 11 percent of students (approximately 44,000) under the California State University system had been homeless at least once in the last year.

Her research also found that 21.5 percent of students in the system, approximately 86,000 students, had experienced “very low food security.”

In an interview prior to the lecture, Crutchfield, who teaches at a commuter school like UAA, shared some ways in which homelessness shows up on computer campuses.

“They’re often taking really high [course] loads… and they might also be working. Then, it can be really hard to access the support services that are available,” Crutchfield said.

She stressed the importance of continuing to build community, raise awareness and educate others on how common the issue of college hunger and homelessness is.

“This is a problem that exists and we’re finding it at UAA and we’re finding this across the country,” Crutchfield said.

Moving forward, Crutchfield plans to keep maintaining a relationship with Trawver, Hedwig and the HHSN.

“We’re building a family of people who care about this,” she said.

UAA currently provides a number of resources for students, including a free emergency food cache at the UAA Student Health and Counseling Center.