Dr. Rashida Crutchfield is heading up an unprecedented statewide study of homelessness and food insecurity among college students, a little-discussed and somewhat hidden issue the California State University is working to address at many of its 23 campuses.

“It’s estimated there are more than 56,000 homeless college students nationwide, but there are no studies regarding food insecurity,” says Dr. Crutchfield, assistant professor in Cal State Long Beach’s School of Social Work. “As a system, it’s important for the CSU to think about students’ basic needs. It’s part of our commitment to student success.”

The first phase of Dr. Crutchfield’s study—the first of its kind by a public university system—was completed in January 2016 and the second should be done by the summer, with the final data analysis phase due to be completed in May 2017. Its goal is to develop systematic solutions enabling every college and university in the country to find these students and ensure they reach their full potential without worrying about where their next meal is coming from or where they will be sleeping.

In June 2016, the CSU Conference to Best Meet the Needs of Housing Displaced and Food Insecure Students operationalized the study and helped participants know about programming, implementation and best practices regarding these issues. “The CSU study was spurred by one homeless and hungry student whom CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White learned about,” Dr. Crutchfield said. Campus efforts such as Sacramento State’s ASI Food Pantry and Cal State Long Beach’s Meals Assistance Program have sprung up systemwide in response to ongoing student needs, but White stressed funding for research and piloting is essential to better understand this at-risk student population and provide the services they need to live and to excel academically.

Dr. Crutchfield has studied the twin issues of youth homelessness and food insecurity for many years. “I worked at Covenant House, a Los Angeles shelter for homeless youth,” she notes. “I watched our residents’ resiliency and ability to achieve despite incredible barriers. It was compelling and inspiring, which led me to do my dissertation on homelessness during my college years.”

“No two stories are alike,” Dr. Crutchfield says. “One of our students has lived in both shelters and transitional housing as a parent with children, sometimes living in her car, and always pushing to get her degree. She knows she’ll never be self-sufficient without the degree, but it’s been quite a struggle. She describes being homeless as a full-time job, but she is making success happen and graduating in spring 2016.”