TAMPA — A handful of salt and pepper packets, a small painting of a mountain, and a cot piled high with clothing and drawstring backpacks are among the few signs that someone is living in a small, sparse apartment about a 15 minute walk away from the University of South Florida.
They belong to a graduate student who became homeless while enrolled at the university and found shelter with the nonprofit Homeless Helping Homeless. The apartment, which can accommodate up to four people at a time, is the first emergency housing shelter in the area and one of few nationwide dedicated to college students who become homeless.
"Right now, all the area shelters are busy setting up the cogs, and there's a cogwheel for pregnant women, and veterans and women with children, but there's no cogwheel for students," said Bryan Booth, spokesman for Homeless Helping Homeless. "We're hoping this can become the first homeless center for USF so students who are couch surfing or staying in shelters can come here and get all the help they need."
With contributions from Booth and a handful of faculty members at USF, Homeless Helping Homeless opened the shelter last week, complete with an extensive system of security cameras, a computer with Wi-Fi, and furnished bedrooms. The $600 paid by the organization each month in rent also gives its residents access to a community pool.
Homeless Helping Homeless began passing out fliers advertising the new shelter just last week, while students are in the middle of summer sessions, but the group already has one resident.
There's little information available on how many college students are homeless, but a 2013 report found that 58,000 students among 20.2 million nationwide reported they were homeless on their FAFSA forms — Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Officials with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth say actual numbers are much higher than reflected in the federal data.
"So many students don't check that box because there's so much shame and guilt," said Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "No one else is tracking these students so there's no way to determine a number, but from having worked in higher education for over a decade I can tell you there are far more, probably double that."
Adding to the estimates is an increasing number of homeless children in kindergarten through 12th grade, which reached 1.3 million last school year and could translate to a rise in homelessness among students transitioning to college, said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for NAEHCY.
"There's also more awareness," Duffield said. "More schools are becoming aware students don't have a place to stay or are struggling to eat while in college."
USF joined most other Florida universities in September by opening an on-campus food pantry, called Feed-A-Bull. There are now 320 active on-campus food pantries across the nation, according to the nonprofit College and University Food Bank Alliance. In 2008, only about four such groups existed.
Food pantries at USF, the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida logged more than 16,000 visits from students last year. USF's pantry has fed more than 200 students since its opening, distributing about 6,000 pounds of food.
Other schools, like the University of North Florida, have even established Homeless Student Services offices for students to get help securing resources like medical care and employment assistance.
When homeless students come looking for help at USF, they are assigned a case manager who helps them identify available resources, such as local homeless shelters, food banks and financial aid, said Makenzie Schiemann, director of the Office of Student Outreach and Support. Florida is one of two states providing a "homeless tuition waiver" that covers verified homeless students' tuition and fees.
"It's an ever-evolving, ever- changing number," Schiemann said. "The homeless students we are working with are temporarily homeless, and it would be helpful to have a place for them to be where they're surrounded by a community more like them that will be supportive as they try to go through school."
Stagnant levels of financial aid and rising housing costs pinch students' pockets.
At USF, about 91 percent of nearly 42,000 students received some form of financial aid during the 2014-15 school year, according to the university. Of those, about 16,700 received need-based aid, based on household income.
Even though enrollment has grown slightly in recent years, the number of students receiving financial aid has shrunk since the 2012-13 school year, when about 39,000 USF students received some form of aid with college tuition, about 18,400 of them need-based.
Full time undergraduate tuition at USF for the fall and spring semester during the 2016-2017 school year is $6,410 for Florida residents and $17,324 for students from out of state. When housing, meals, books, supplies and other expenses are added in, the USF website tells students to plan on spending $21,110 in a school year if they're Florida residents and $32,024 if they're non-residents.
For graduate students, those costs increase to an estimated $26,278 per school year for Florida residents and $36,976 a year for non-residents.
In Tampa, 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the average income per person is $29,704, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Booth calls the new apartment shelter TANSTAAFL House, which stands for: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Students can live in the apartment rent-free for up to 30 days, well over the usual three free days offered by area shelters.
After the 30 days are up, students can stay in the apartment for the next 60 days at $7.50 a day and the 90 days after that for $10 a day — giving them up to half a year to get back on their feet. Students are encouraged to pay back Homeless Helping Homeless when they can, but their contract says the agency quits asking after five years and no legal action will be taken to recoup costs.
"It's just an honorary thing where we're hoping they'll give back, and we're hoping they'll give back 20-fold or 40-fold," Booth said. "USF students have a lot more resources than most homeless people, and they should be able to get rapidly rehoused or get diverted from homelessness, get hooked up with a roommate or a work-study job. There are all kinds of possibilities."
For Booth, providing at-risk students with a stable form of support is a personal mission. He spent the last seven years at USF getting a doctorate degree in geosciences, five of those years teaching classes as a graduate assistant. He soon came to realize that one or two students in his classes were homeless, as was another graduate student taking urban planning classes alongside him.
"If you go on campus late at night you see people sleeping in nooks and crannies, or you see people in the computer labs at 3 or 4 in the morning," Booth said. "You look for the physical signs, a body stench, which means a lack of shower facilities, or a very large, overflowing bag which is, sometimes, noticeably dirty."
For now, there are plans for Homeless Helping Homeless to run the program until December, after which Booth said he would like to make the shelter the focus of a faculty charity. Many among the faculty have expressed an interest in helping, he said.
"Faculty are the ones that are most impacted by homeless students. They're the ones who see them face to face every day and try to give them advice."