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From Housing To Food Insecurity: NIU Is Creating A One-Stop-Shop For Student Support Services

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Holmes Student Center at Northern Illinois University.

Kelly Olson knows college campuses can be an overly-complex web of offices and services. She’s the assistant dean of students at Northern Illinois University, and says for students struggling with housing or food insecurity, it can be hard to know where to find help.

A new bill advancing in the Illinois House would require higher-ed institutions like NIU to organize assistance for homeless college students and students in care and also collect data on how many attend the school. Just as the pandemic began, NIU consolidated support services under the new Center for Student Assistance.

“I can tell my story once, I don't have to tell them 1,000 times. I can tell it once, and then that staff will be able to help me navigate the university and community resources,” said Olson.

The center can link students with legal support, the Huskie Food Pantry and a bevy of other programs. Olson says right now they serve around 50 students a week with the food pantry and helped around half a dozen homeless students get a hotel and then campus housing. Many students facing housing insecurity spend time sleeping on friends’ couches or in their cars and may not even realize they’re considered homeless and have support available.

Just last week the center helped several homeless students; securing emergency funding for food, placing them in a hotel and then in campus housing. Olson said a common misconception is that students experiencing housing and food insecurity must have made some kind of mistake.

“Oftentimes, that has been a failure of different systems. It's been a failure of other services,” she said. “And so there's some trust that we have to build with our students who are struggling.”

As the center evolves, Olson says part of that trust-building will include a case management, social work-style system. It means building more connections with community partners and targeting emergency funding at specific populations after COVID.

Despite those new services, as at K-12 schools, the lack of in-person classes during the pandemic has made it challenging for faculty and staff to identify students who may be showing warning signs of housing insecurity.