War on Student Homelessness

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    JACQUELINE WILSON, a former telecommunications executive and wife of Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, is moving to address the scourge of homelessness on the campus of the university. — Andre Smith photos

    Jacqueline Wilson goes to bat for homeless WSU students

    Jacqueline Wilson, a successful business executive, has long been in the world of corporate sales in telecommunications, launching large financial institutions and data centers around the globe and managing million dollar networks in the high energy world of telecommunications.

    But now the wife of Wayne State University President Dr. M. Roy Wilson wants to focus on something entirely different that harkens back to what she used to do in Los Angeles, — making brown bag lunches and serving the homeless on the streets and helping the underprivileged — as she settles in Detroit that will make a significant difference in the lives of those students who look to the university to equip them with the educational degree needed to transform their lives.

    Wilson has decided that it is time to ring the bell and sound the alarm on student homelessness, an issue that is normally under the radar, and hardly discussed when the subject of homelessness comes up in community conversations. Often the focus is on those adults who are sleeping under the bridges or the streets, but not the students who are roaming around campus after classes because they have nowhere to call home.

    There is no concrete estimate as to how many college students in the country are homeless. But according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), about 58,158 college applicants said they where homeless, on federal financial aid, with paperwork they filled out for the 2012-13 academic year.

    “My initial interest in this issue began when it was first brought to my attention at a reception I attended that there were homeless students at Wayne State,” Wilson said in an interview with the Chronicle. “I’ve always had a passion for helping the homeless all the way back to Los Angeles. I felt that if there is anything I wanted to do to contribute to the university is to help these students who are homeless.”

    Upon her husband’s appointment as the new leader of the university, Wilson has received many requests to sit on committees as well as render volunteer services.

    But she said despite all those requests, nothing trumps the mission of helping homeless students find a shelter and a place they can call home. Her mission now is to begin identifying who these students are.

    “It’s been a process just uncovering because this is not something that the students I’m sure are proud of,” Wilson explained. “I want the program to be such that they don’t feel stigmatized or ashamed of their current situation.”

    She noted that with Detroit’s brutal winter weather, it is even more crucial to begin to offer help to students who find themselves either in shelters, sleeping in their cars or tucked away somewhere in the library of the university because of the weather.

    In 2012, National Public Radio reported that, “For many college students and their families, rising tuition costs and a tough economy are presenting new challenges as college bills come in. This has led to a little-known but growing population of financially stressed students, who are facing hunger and sometimes even homelessness.”

    The National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, DC, in a fact sheet about homelessness, indicated that one of the factors is that the young people involved leave home after “years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, and parental neglect. Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home.”

    Wilson’s decision to wage a war on homelessness on campus is something that is unusual for the spouses of college presidents, especially in the case of Wayne State.

    But she quickly said her motivation is not the rarity of the role that she is playing as the supportive spouse to her husband. Rather, it is a need that must be addressed.

    “I think it is important as first lady but that is not why I’m doing it. I wanted to contribute back to the university in some form,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to do something that I’m not fully engaged or whole heartedly involved in. Tackling homelessness is something that is going to keep me engaged.”

    To do just that, Wilson has established the program HIGH (Helping Individuals Go Higher) that would, among other things, engage potential sponsor families about housing homeless students and providing financial support for text books as well as transportation resources so the students can get to school on time.

    President Wilson, who said he and his wife are a team, has also established a HIGH fund to support the venture.

    “We’ve notified all of the deans and professors,” Wilson said, underscoring the overwhelming response the program has received. “People are so interested in helping and enthusiastic about the idea of giving back. So we want to organize a more formal structure of receiving donations and support.”

    Last Thanksgiving, the president and his wife did something that was rare. They invited students who didn’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving for dinner at the president’s court on campus.

    Wilson recalls there were about 39 students who came to dine with their new president and his family. It was Wilson’s idea as she began to lay the foundation of providing support to the number of students who are homeless on the campus of the university.

    “What was so profound for me was that the students were so appreciative to be able to go somewhere for Thanksgiving. Spending the holidays alone can be depressing,” Wilson said.

    To support the HIGH program for the homeless at Wayne State University contact 313 577 0573 or email Jacquelinewilson@wayne.edu

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