The Key to College Success? People Have to Care about You.

Washington Post photo by Petula Dvorak
Artie Lee Travis, vice president of student affairs at Frostburg State University in Maryland, helps Kamari Felton with his bags. Travis drove to D.C. to pick up Felton.

He’s moved into his dorm now, his classes are set and he went to a board game night.

The verdant campus of Frostburg State University is everything he’d dreamed it would be. Only a week ago, Kamari Felton believed that dream was dead after a last-minute call from the school saying his financial aid didn’t go through. He had already packed his bags and cleaned out the room in a shelter that had been his home for nearly a year.

Sorry. Adults shuffling papers and checking boxes shrugged.

We published a column last week about the absurd circle the 22-year-old was whirlpooling in. He was told by a Maryland bureaucracy that he wouldn’t get aid because he was living in D.C. Then D.C. told him he wouldn’t get aid from the city because he didn’t have proof of residency for three of his years as a teenager.

The money – set aside in thoughtful programs created by universities and governments to help unhoused and largely unsupported students like Felton – was there. The programs were in place.

This was 100 percent human error. Calling attention to that got it fixed – within hours.

The day after Felton’s story went online, the school’s vice president for student affairs drove his black Chevy SUV to the front door of the shelter that had been Felton’s home this year. He helped the student heft his suitcases into the car and drove him to campus, three hours away.

“We felt horrible about the way it happened,” Artie Lee Travis told me, taking one of the bags from Felton.

Hoorah for Travis for stepping up. Congrats to D.C. for finally approving Felton’s aid package. (And a huge thank you to all the readers who swelled a GoFundMe set up by Washington Post reader Leslie McDunn to more than $41,000. And to Leah Gage, the Playtime Project intern who met Felton years ago and helped him pick a college.)

But it shouldn’t take a column to do what could’ve been done all along. And now we have to ask how many students like Felton are falling through the holes of thoughtfully constructed safety nets.

“Most youth don’t have the support of advocates and might not even be aware of the help that is available to them – or how to challenge rules where there may be loopholes,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit in D.C. that focuses on education for kids experiencing homelessness.

The problem is that “administrators don’t know the rules or aren’t following them,” said Duffield, who regularly fields questions from homeless youths on financial aid issues. “I imagine that for every email we receive, there must be 100 we don’t receive.”

Social programs don’t mean squat if the recipients can’t get to the help.

“A huge part of making this work is human contact,” said Joshua Burris, 30. “Meaningful, human contact.”

Burris speaks with authority.

He spent almost a decade living in his car, bouncing between shelters and bad situations – with some time in the Navy – before getting to Howard University, where he is now a junior majoring in political science and studying for his LSAT.

Like Felton, Burris was an honor roll student with big dreams in high school. But when he was a teen in Prince George’s County, he said, his family rejected him because he told them he was gay. That led to life on the streets, the military, then shelter living and a downward spiral.

He found that case managers, program administrators and clerks largely moved him along with box-checking and paper-pushing when he tried to get help.

“When I got my housing voucher, I could see the people there were overworked,” he said. “Housing vouchers aren’t going to solve all the problems that made people homeless. I saw multiple, multiple people die in their apartments after they got vouchers. They were in those apartments alone . . . no one to care about them.”

Felton’s experiences – common to homeless youths in the DMV – plunged him through the cracks. The Maryland native had been living in-state when he applied to school, but he shifted back to a D.C. shelter 10 months ago after spending many years as a high school student in the District.

When he tried to go through a D.C. program for help, he needed records he could not produce from a time he’d been living in D.C. General’s massive family shelter. An administrator suggested Felton ask his mom for her tax returns to show proof of residency.

Again, anyone taking a closer look at his application would see that it’s unlikely an unemployed woman – Felton told me he hasn’t seen her in five years – would be able to produce three years of tax forms.

While the McKinney-Vento Act – passed in 1987 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan – requires states and K-12 schools to tackle barriers to learning faced by students experiencing homelessness, Duffield said, there’s no equivalent for college – yet.

The bipartisan Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2022 is still waiting for congressional action and would mandate colleges to have liaisons for students like Felton and Burris to be the support system they never had, and would loosen residency requirements to adjust for the transience that’s often part of their lives.

Some states – Maryland is one – are already doing this, including at Frostburg State, where Felton plans to study psychology. Soft-spoken and introspective about his years of neglect, he wants to be a therapist specializing in men’s mental health. “A lot of men need that help, but don’t get it,” he told me as we sat on a park bench last week.

Experts have termed crises of the kind Felton endured a matter of caring, not legislating.

Felton and Burris didn’t have parents urging them to write their college essays, to take the SAT prep course, to tour campuses – let alone parents who helped them fill out financial aid forms. That kind of caring had to come from the people who administer government assistance programs.

“This goes back to the culture of these places,” said Burris, who still struggles every semester to get his housing and food benefits from a D.C. bureaucracy that has its computers down, is out to lunch, or simply shrugs when he wasn’t informed about rule changes. “And that hurts my heart. Some of these people don’t realize that they’re all we have. They are our community.”