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Millie Christie-Dervaux / Senior Staff Photographer

A stable housing situation can often feel out of reach for low-income Columbia students like Columbia College Senior Doreen Mohammed.

Doreen Mohammed became homeless in November 2014—her senior year at Columbia College. “Homelessness is one of those things where you never think it’s going to happen to you,” Mohammed says. “[You think,] ‘Oh, I’m doing everything right, like I’m excelling in high school, I’m going to college, I got a scholarship, going to Columbia, and they have a lot of resources to support me, I’ll always be OK,’ and then everything just spiraled out of control.”

Mohammed says her home life involved years of emotional and financial abuse. For years, she supported her entire family, paying for rent and other necessities while suffering from emotional abuse at the hands of her mother. “It just came to the point, starting in October onward, where I couldn’t do it [go home] anymore, I just couldn’t. So I managed to sneak all my documents out of the home, my passport, social security, birth certificate, and speak with my siblings one last time.”

Mohammed currently lives on campus, but worries about the high costs of living at Columbia. She fears that she will need to take out more loans for school and for living independently after graduation.

“I already have so much financial debt because of the financial abuse aspect of running a household and paying rent and bills and stuff,” Mohammed says. “To take on more loans just so I can live in peace and not die from the insanity is such a terrifying thing.”

Since leaving her mother’s house for good, Mohammed has been unsuccessful in finding housing for the summer. At one point a friend of Mohammed’s told her that she had found summer housing by going through Sexual Violence Response despite not having been sexually abused. Through SVR, Mohammed’s friend had been able to explain her financial situation and receive free housing—a tactic Mohammed is now trying. “I have emailed the director of the Sexual Violence Response about my situation, as terrified as I was, and I have yet to hear a response,” she says. “I have to probably go in person to the Sexual Violence Response office even though I have not been sexually abused.”

Without a concrete solution, Mohammed is unsure of what she will do when she graduates.

“I’ll just have to take a loan or hide out with friends and couch surf or something, which is the experience of a lot of GS students, so it’s not farfetched,” Mohammed says. “I don't particularly know, and in fact, that scares me. It’s the elephant in the room.”


Gabriele Rosado, a junior in the School of General Studies, applied for University housing to alleviate the stress of a two-hour commute. // Photo by Madeline Molot for Spectator

Sometimes homelessness is more complicated than not having a place to go when school isn’t in session. It can be caused by geographic distance or difficulties sustaining costs.

For Gabriele Rosado, a junior in the School of General Studies, the question of housing is a also a source of stress. Rosado was originally a part-time commuter from New Jersey, but the sometimes two-hour commute became unmanageable in addition to her coursework.

“I actually spent the night at Butler Library because I was just studying so much and just going home was a pain,” Rosado says. “It would take like two hours for me to get from here [campus] to Jersey. It got to the point where I would be missing classes to make up for sleep.”

Rosado applied for University housing in order to live closer to campus, and became a full-time student in order to qualify for that housing. She remains eligible for housing only as long as she is enrolled as a full-time student at Columbia.

“It was really difficult for me as a low-income student to bite the bullet and apply for housing because I knew that would be like an extra $6,000—several thousand dollars on top of my tuition bill,” Rosado says. “And also that would mean that I would have to become a full-time student.”

Housing is guaranteed during the school year for Barnard, Columbia College, and School of Engineering and Applied Science students, but not for GS students.

Rosado says that when she brought her problems to the attention of the GS administration, she received support that enabled her to remain enrolled at Columbia.

“I spoke to my adviser about it, and he worked with the dean of students and totally just created a special plan for me, and because of him and the dean of students, let’s just say you will be seeing me around next semester,” Rosado says.

However, despite the support, paying for her apartment remains a problem for Rosado. She is currently applying for a private loan to cover housing costs.

“I’m actually going through that fear right now because I’m waiting for a refund check to come in so that I can pay off my balance and, you know, I don’t want to renew my apartment lease until my balance is paid for,” Rosado says. “For me, it’s trying to hold onto my place for as long as possible. I mean, ideally, I would love to stay in my apartment until the day I graduate, but that involves money.”


Anna Demidova, a sophomore in GS, now has housing through her role as a residential adviser. // Photo by Chris Jones, Staff Photographer

Anna Demidova, a junior in GS and residential adviser, spoke about her own difficulties when applying for GS financial aid her first year. “My very first year I was very frustrated because I applied for financial aid in November and I got an answer in May,” Demidova says. “I was just very confused. It was very frustrating waiting for six months for them to get back to me on the letter that I thought they would be reviewing at least once a month.”

Demidova was homeless her first two months at Columbia, and says she would often sleep in the Diana Center, which is open until 2 a.m., until she got kicked out by the security guards.

“How can you actually concentrate or how can your memory work if you constantly are sleep-deprived and you’re worrying about where’s the place where you're going to be tonight or where can you take a shower, where can you change?” Demidova says.

Demidova says that non-guaranteed housing takes a particularly large toll on low-income GS students. “We have people crashing in the GS lounge, other people sleeping in cars, crashing on people’s floors and couches once they move here,” she says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Anna Demidova was a sophomore in GS. She is actually a junior. The Eye regrets the error. 

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