Learned on the street: Chicago student finds a way out of college homelessness

Tony Romero. Photo: Josh Leff for The DePaulia Tony Romero. Photo: Josh Leff for The DePaulia

After he had to leave an uncle’s home to make room for other relatives to live there, DePaul University accounting major Tony Romero found himself living on the streets of Chicago. On good nights, he would ride the city’s elevated trains so he could have a place to sleep. On bad nights, he curled up on an outdoor bench not far from DePaul’s downtown campus.

Another student who had no permanent home would sneak at night into a DePaul building that had showers so he could wash up before his classes began in the morning.

“There are students who are forced to leave their homes because they are put out, or they have to leave because they live in a very chaotic situation. Some lose their scholarships or can’t get federal loans and can’t pay for both their tuition and housing,” says Sister Judy Warmbold, a Daughter of Charity, who helps DePaul students who do not have a consistent place to live.

Another student who had no permanent home would sneak at night into a DePaul building that had showers so he could wash up before his classes began in the morning.

The problem is hardly confined to DePaul, where student housing costs about $12,000 a year, or even to Chicago. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates as many as 58,000 students across the United States—about one in 10—face homelessness at some point during college.

“We really try not to use the word homeless, we prefer to say they face ‘housing insecurity’ because there is so much shame attached to the world homeless,” Sister Warmbold says.

Sister Warmbold coordinates the DePaul Dax Host Home Program, which seeks to match students who are experiencing financial difficulties with free or inexpensive housing. The name Dax refers to the town in France where St. Vincent DePaul was sheltered by a local family during his studies. DePaul officials are hoping their Dax program will become a model for universities across the nation.

“It’s a growing problem, that’s for sure,” says Sister Warmbold, who worked as a professional counselor before joining the Dax program.

As tuition and fees rise, the affordability of housing is a growing concern for many students. For those who do not receive financial aid at DePaul, tuition and fees total about $35,000 a year. With room and board added in, the cost jumps to nearly $51,000 annually. At Yale University and many other top-rated schools, tuition, fees, room and board can easily top $63,000 a year.

“I had seen people who were homeless, but I never comprehended it. The worst part for me was not knowing what was going to happen next.”

Mr. Romero’s story has a happy ending. The Dax program was able to relocate him to a small apartment. Its owner let him live there rent-free. Other students have been relocated to empty bedrooms at parish rectories or live with host families willing to take students into their homes.

Sister Warmbold said the accounting department at DePaul pitched in to help Mr. Romero thrive in his new home and insure he could continue his studies. “They were amazed to learn what he went through. They had no idea,” she says.

Mr. Romero, now 29, has since graduated with an accounting degree. He now works as a manager for H&R Block and oversees the accounts for DePaul USA, a charity that works to find housing for the homeless. He also serves on the DePaul USA board.

His time on the streets, he says, “opened my eyes to so many things. I had seen people who were homeless, but I never comprehended it. The worst part for me was not knowing what was going to happen next.”

Mr. Romero says he never passes up a chance to speak about his homeless experience because he wants to “wipe out the shame” other students might feel about their predicament.

Still, homeless students on campuses remain largely hidden from view. DePaul’s Dax program is now working to purchase a residence not far from the campus where as many as 10 students can stay at a time. University officials are trying to raise $180,000 to purchase the home and an additional $60,000 to adapt it for student use.

“This is a model that maybe could be replicated at other universities,” says Chuck Levesque, president and executive director of DePaul USA.

The Vincentian Order of priests and their sister organization the Daughters of Charity have a long involvement in working with the poor and homeless. DePaul University also houses the Institute of Global Homelessness, which seeks to address the underlying causes of homelessness throughout the world and find solutions toward crisis intervention.

Ultimately, making sure students have a clean, safe place to live is an integral part of the education experience, says Shenay Bridges, the assistant dean of students, who has worked with several students who have been unable to afford campus housing.

“This impacts their ability to be academically successful and be able to graduate,” she says.

Correction: The photo credit was updated on Feb. 14 at 2:51 p.m.

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