Sixteen students at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn who experience homelessness or housing insecurity are getting their rents paid as part of a pilot program its backers hope could be replicated throughout the city’s public university system and elsewhere.
The Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, a nonprofit based in Manhattan, says the financial support could help CUNY students earn a college degree, and lift them and their families out of poverty.
“For generations, CUNY has been a gateway to the middle class for thousands of New Yorkers,” said Ann Shalof, CEO of Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter. “Sadly, many students will never complete their degrees, not because they lack motivation, but because they do not have access to stable housing.”
Isabella Marie Zaldaña is among the 16 students from Medgar Evers who were selected to participate in the inaugural program, which has the capacity to pay the rents of 36 students.
In addition to free housing, the program also has onsite staff who provide supportive services that help students confront the challenges that come with homelessness and housing insecurity.
“I went from living with four [other] people in one room to – now it's actually one person in one bedroom. That's crazy,” said the 19-year-old first-year student. “I still kind of feel shocked. I'm like, it's just me in here.”
Before she moved into the three-bedroom apartment in Long Island City, Queens, about two months ago, which she shares with two classmates, Zaldaña was sharing a 300 square foot studio apartment with her parents, sister and grandmother.
Zaldaña, who graduated from one of the city’s most selective public schools, Hunter Science High School in Manhattan, struggled to find a quiet place to study.
“I was living in coffee shops and libraries because I didn't have resources to study at home comfortably in the ways that I needed to,” said Zaldaña. “I work best when it's a bit quiet. Having four or five people in one room there's no way you can really have that quiet you need to focus.”
An estimated 55% of students across CUNY's 19 campuses experience housing insecurity, according to a 2019 report based on a survey the prior school year by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. The survey found that students couldn’t afford utilities or rent and were forced to move in with others or move frequently.
Shalof estimates the cost per student to be about $30,000 a year, which the nonprofit says is significantly lower than the annual cost of housing a homeless adult in a city shelter.
“Our hope and expectation is to shine a light on the need and the effectiveness of doing this in order to garner broader public and government support,” she said. “Meaning we'd like to see this become part of a city or state funding stream.”
This story has been updated to add more detail about the pilot program's supportive services.