Homelessness among university students bigger than people realize, says prof

For years, Eric Weissman struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and sometimes he even slept outdoors.

His lifestyle caused him to drop out of the University of Toronto, where he was studying anthropology and sociology.

"I actually owed drug dealers money and I was just hoping they would end me because I couldn't do anything," said the 57-year-old.

It wasn't until the age of 33, his older sister tracked him down, knocked on his door and persuaded him to see a doctor.

"He actually told me I would've been dead in about three weeks to a month," he said. "You can't see out from that lifestyle when you're stuck in it."

It took sessions of detox, a treatment centre and rehab before Weissman stopped using drugs and drinking alcohol.

Soon after, he started filming the stories of people he got to know in Toronto's tent city. The waterfront community sprang up on the edge of the harbour in the winter of 1998 and existed until about 125 residents were evicted in September 2002.

Student homelessness a 'big issue'

Today, Weissman is an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, doing research into post-secondary student homelessness across the country.

Student homelessness is a bigger issue than people realize, he said, and to prevent it, Canada needs to better understand the scope of the problem.

Weissman said early findings from surveys suggest 3.5 per cent of post-secondary students in Canada, or about 70,000 students, experience homelessness. 

Often it's because students have lost their jobs or their housing.

We're just trying to figure out how big it is and then suggest a solution. - Eric Weissman

"They have to make a choice and education ends up being one of the choices they have to sacrifice, or they decide they want to keep their education, so they start becoming housed precariously."

These students will decide to live on the streets and in their vehicles or even camp outside.

"Doing things that just don't produce good education results," Weissman said.

Although Canada has national housing and poverty strategies, he said there isn't a program targeting student homelessness because it's never been identified as a particular problem, as it has been with young families, primary and secondary school students.

But housing insecurity is an issue that government and Canadian universities need to start focusing on, he said.

Paul Daly/Canadian Press

"Not all post-secondary students … are 18 or 20 years old," he said. "Some of them are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and they're retraining to become parts of our changing economy."

In the United States, 1.5 million post-secondary students suffer from homelessness, he said. 

 "We're just trying to figure out how big it is [in Canada] and then suggest a solution."

The factors causing student homelessness aren't necessarily to do with the price of an education, Weissman said. 

"I think it has more to do with not the cost of education but the cost of living and the cost of housing," he said.  

Housing comes before education

Gary Moore/CBC

While education is important, needs such as food, housing, medicine, looking after dependents are more immediate.

"These things are more crucial than education," he said.

"If we can alleviate the cost of those things or providing those things, more secure education will follow."

He doesn't believe students should be charged to go to school, and education should be viewed as an "investment than a cost."

"We have to do … something, I just don't know what yet," he said.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton, The Canadian Press