For much of his life, Daniel Long made his living performing manual labor jobs and picking up work in the construction industry. He liked the act of building things, of being a person who creates. But a knee injury forced him out of the industry.
“It’s a hard thing when you’ve been doing something all your life, and it changes to something you can’t do,” Long said.
So, Long made a choice — if he couldn’t construct buildings in the physical world, he would find a way to build something in the digital space.
Long started a two-year, online web design program. When he finishes, he plans to use his new skills to help people launch their businesses and change their own lives for the better.
Going back to school at 38 would be difficult for almost anybody, but Long has an additional challenge. For the past four years, he has been surviving homelessness on the streets of Seattle.
As the cost of higher education grows and the price of shelter in cities like Seattle veers upward, stories like Long’s are far from uncommon.
A 2018 survey of 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia found that 36 percent of university students and 51 percent of community college students had experienced housing insecurity in the past year. Nine percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students had experienced homelessness in that time period.
Universities and community colleges are looking for ways to help the large number of students like Long who are fighting to get advanced education while dealing with the compounding indignities of surviving while homeless.
Even the most basic activities are harder when you’re unhoused.
Finding meals, taking a shower, charging your computer or accessing the internet is a full-time job in and of itself. Long’s school doesn’t have a physical campus, so he does his coursework in 90-minute bursts at local libraries. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to crime — Long’s computer was stolen, and he didn’t have the resources to immediately replace it. He sells the Real Change paper for extra money, and he also took on a leadership role within the vendor community, another significant time commitment.
Balancing everything is difficult, but he is determined to make it through.
“I’m just trying to tread water,” Long said. “If I can do that, I can succeed. I know I can succeed.”
Josephine Ensign, a professor at the University of Washington, is working within the University District community to support young people who, like Long, are trying to get through.
She directs the Doorway Project, an initiative of the university meant to help address youth homelessness in the district. The Doorway Project isn’t exclusively for UW students, instead seeking to support struggling young people without the stigma that is often ascribed to homelessness.
“There are so many young people who don’t identify as being homeless, who for various reasons don’t like going to homeless specific agencies,” Ensign said. “They don’t like the stigma, they don’t like the chaos, they don’t like being labeled for what they’re missing.”
The Doorway Project uses pop-up cafes to give people a safe space to congregate and get access to tools and resources.
Ensign believes that the university has a responsibility to the young people in the area, especially as the UW Master Plan — a development plan that includes 6 million square feet in new construction — set to change the face of the University District.
“I feel strongly as a professor here that we have a duty to do much better for our students,” Ensign said.
Faced with similar pressures, the UW campus in Tacoma is responding by increasing housing options for the most vulnerable students.
UWT announced in January a unique partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority and Koz Development to provide 52 low-income student apartments right across the street from the university’s campus. The university stepped up with funds to pay for the students’ security deposit and screening fees, removing one more barrier to housing.
“These apartments will help meet a dire need,” reads a press release from the housing authority. “A 2014 survey done by school faculty found that 14% of their students were housing-insecure. This partnership offers these students affordable housing a stone’s throw from campus.”
The partnership between the three entities is a unique way to leverage local resources to help vulnerable students. State Sen. Emily Randall (D-Bremerton) wants to make sure that other campuses have the money and flexibility to do something similar.
Randall sponsored SB 5800, a piece of legislation that establishes a pilot program to funnel money to university and colleges that can be used to support homeless students. The proposed pilot would initially be limited to six institutions evenly distributed between the western and eastern portions of the state. One coordinator for the pilot project will manage the program and act as a conduit for information sharing and data collection.
Each selected campus will be able to design their program for the unique needs of their campus and students, Randall said.
“They have incredible flexibility,” Randall said. “What we’re hoping to see is participating programs figure out how many students are experiencing housing and food insecurity and what they need to be successful.”
The idea of the pilot is twofold: help homeless students achieve stability and success in school as institutions gather more data about their homeless student population. Randall hopes that at the end of the pilot, the campuses will have produced a variety of interesting models that other colleges could emulate or adjust.
“This program isn’t a silver bullet,” Randall said. “It doesn’t solve the problem for all students. It does allow us to try some really creative and innovative strategies. It allows us to provide resources to colleges that are already getting creative and create that network of peer support, try something another is trying.”
Back in Seattle, Daniel Long is working with his adviser to get a hold of another computer. Despite the challenges, he’s enjoying the process of learning how to use project and design programs like Powerpoint, a program that has changed a lot since he left high school nearly 20 years ago.
He marvels at the sheer availability of information on the internet and the power that good design can have in building up companies and other organizations. Long already has plans for a website he wants to make when he finishes the program.
“I’m going to design a page for Real Change,” he said. “I’m going to do that for free.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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