*Editor’s note: Name has been changed to protect student’s identity.
As last semester came to a close, double major Julia Carrell* had more than finals on her mind. She moved out of her near-campus home, moved her clothes from the closet to the trunk of her car and packed her backpack with bathroom toiletries. This would be the first semester she lived as a homeless college student.
“I ran out of money, that was all,” Carrell said. “When it happened I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could get a job, bust ass and try to make each month’s rent,’ but even then I don’t think I’d be able to make that. So, why not stay on campus for free?”
For many students, tuition isn’t the only cost of being at Ball State. For example, to live in a double room at LaFollette Complex, as Carrell did her freshman year, it costs $7,950 with the minimum 10 Plus meal plan. For those that have moved past freshman year and into off-campus living, the financial burden decreases. The average student apartment or house rent share can range from $2,475 to 4,500 for the nine months that students attend spring and fall semesters.
The catch: If a student works 20 hours, the maximum amount of hours a full-time student is allowed to work at an on-campus job, at the state’s minimum wage of $7.25, then the maximum amount they could make per month is $580, before taxes. On looking at the 2013 federal poverty guidelines, students in this situation, if not receiving additional funds, are living $4,530 below the poverty line.
While Carrell has never met any other homeless Ball State students, she is not alone. More than 33,000 college students identified themselves as homeless on Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms in the 2010–11 academic year, according to USA Today College. Carrell said she was surprised with some responses she got when she mentioned her situation to people.
“Some people have been like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was homeless when I was in college,’” Carrell said. “I had no idea this was even a thing.”
Carrell showers in the Student Recreation and Wellness Center and gets changed and ready in public bathrooms before her slew of classes. She mostly sleeps in a room in a campus building, normally wearing a coat to keep her warm. Sometimes she sleeps on friends’ couches, but she said she tries not to impose. She makes sure she is up before morning classes begin. She hasn’t been caught yet by professors, students or custodians. But she is open with friends about her living situation.
“People are usually really supportive,” Carrell said. “Most of the time they start out with pitying me. I tell them I’m fine, don’t worry about it. I’m not pitying myself, so don’t pity me. A lot of people don’t make this decision, they are forced into homelessness. I made this decision for myself.”
Carrell splits her time between the 21 credit hours she is taking and an estimated 20 hours as a waitress at a local restaurant. In her free time, which is few and far in between, she still lives the college lifestyle with extracurriculars, sipping Starbucks and hanging out with friends in bars.
This has been the first semester she has worked, previous years she has used the cash she earned at summer jobs to cover the costs that her grants, loans and scholarship don’t cover. Carrell estimates she is currently $22,000 in debt from school loans. However, she does her best to minimize the costs.
“I’d rather be homeless now than later,” Carrell said.
Carrell grew up in a place nicknamed “The Golden Ghetto” because it was a lower income neighborhood that was still within the city limits of Carmel, Ind., a city known for its community wealth.
“In my sophomore year of high school, my dad told me that I would never be able to go to college because I don’t have the money,” Carrell said. “But that gave me even more of a drive to do it. I wanted to prove him wrong.”
Carrell knew her parents wouldn’t be able to financially contribute to college, so the burden was all on her.
While the change would turn some students’ worlds upside down, Carrell said being homeless hasn’t really affected her already simplistic lifestyle. In fact, she said the experience has been an adventure.
“I like it a lot more [than previous living situations],” Carrell said. “I’m not surrounded by material possessions I don’t need. This really cleaned out my life. I live simpler, and I don’t have to worry about rent.”
Next year, Carrell said she may or may not be homeless again, but the prospect doesn’t bother her. Carrell’s plan is to get into graduate school post-graduation and work in the arts.
“I’m a fighter, I’m tough, I’m determined,” Carrell said. “I want to graduate with a double major so bad I will be homeless.”
She also looks at the possibility of doing a cross-country road trip and living out of her car, stopping at the places the indie rock band Bon Iver has names songs after. The possibilities are wide-open.
“After this semester, I can do anything,” Carrell said.