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Formerly homeless college student in Colorado finally has a place to call his own


More than a million and a half college students in America are homeless. KUNC's Emma VandenEinde has a story of one student who found help.

EMMA VANDENEINDE, BYLINE: Oscar Godinez-Avila grew up poor in northern Colorado. Both of his parents worked but could only afford the essentials. His dad worked in agriculture and trucking, and his family had to move every couple years. Godinez-Avila often slept on the living room floor in one-bedroom apartments with his three siblings. They never bought anything new, and when he was little, he remembers being jealous of other kids' backpacks at school.

OSCAR GODINEZ-AVILA: We could only afford the standard, like, one-color ones, and then I see other kids walking around with, like, Super Mario or, like, some other pop character on there. That was a bit hard for me.

VANDENEINDE: Godinez-Avila, who's 25 now, managed to graduate high school and was hungry for more education. He got a small scholarship to attend Colorado State University, but found out pretty quickly he couldn't afford to stay in the dorms and became homeless. Sometimes he'd stay with friends.

GODINEZ-AVILA: They were kind enough to let me be on their couch while I figured out something more permanent. Unfortunately, that usually just meant I needed to find another couch.

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VANDENEINDE: Godinez-Avila would often use the sinks on campus to clean up. He'd skip breakfast because he had no place to store his food. He was always working or doing homework. He felt different.

GODINEZ-AVILA: It felt like everybody here had money. Everybody here had a heritage and a legacy to build off of, and I was just left really confused.

VANDENEINDE: Eight percent of American undergraduate students are homeless, according to a survey of more than 2,000 colleges by the U.S. Department of Education. It also found 5% of grad students are homeless. Those statistics aren't perfect, says independent researcher Sara Goldrick-Rab.

SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: Because those are the survivors, so to speak. Those are the ones who were able to have enough financial strength - right? - to stay in college despite the fact that everything was pushing them out.

VANDENEINDE: Some organizations are trying to help. Godinez-Avila and a few other students trickle into the kitchen at LuMin, the Lutheran ministry just across the street from CSU. They're serving chili.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How was y'all's break?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was pretty good.

VANDENEINDE: In addition to free meals, in 2021, LuMin started providing housing. It subsidizes 20 bedrooms in a nearby apartment complex for just under $400 a month, and students get to stay there until they graduate. But LuMin can't house everyone who applies, says the organization's Donna Lopez.

DONNA LOPEZ: I think the hardest part for all of us is after we decide and we go through and we realize who we're going to take is realizing we took 20, but we had 60 applications.

VANDENEINDE: Subsidized housing like LuMin provides isn't available near many college campuses, but for those who get it, it's life-changing. Oscar Godinez-Avila now lives in a LuMin apartment. His bedroom is what you'd expect a college student space to look like. There's a big Colorado flag on the wall, a full laundry basket, and books everywhere.

GODINEZ-AVILA: It's a bit of a disaster.

VANDENEINDE: He finally has a space to call his own.

GODINEZ-AVILA: Like, just being able to decorate this house is so motivating. It makes me feel a lot more dignified.

VANDENEINDE: He's been able to afford nicer things, like some houseplants and his brand-new backpack. It's brown with white spots accented with blue straps.

GODINEZ-AVILA: This is the most expensive backpack I've ever bought. So I wanted a good quality bag for once. And dag nabbit, I got it.

VANDENEINDE: Without the worry of housing, he had the time to focus on classwork. He's due to graduate this spring and now plans to pursue a master's degree in history in the fall.

For NPR News, I'm Emma VandenEinde in Fort Collins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emma VandenEinde