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Danielle Holmes, president of MSU Denver

Refuge in education

New data show housing insecurity is a serious issue for Denver college students. Here's how one student leader is shaping a safety net for others.

September 17, 2019

By Matt Watson

Housing insecurity is a serious issue for more than half of Denver college students.

A special report published this month by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found that 55% of respondents from Denver colleges and universities experienced housing insecurity in the previous year; 18% experienced homelessness.

The findings didn’t surprise Danielle Holmes, president of the Student Government Assembly at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She experienced homelessness and domestic violence before finding refuge in higher education. Now, as SGA president, she’s calling attention to the issue of housing insecurity among college students and telling senior leaders at the University about her housing experience, which is all-too common among college students.

“Until I was able to find myself in school … I was lost,” Holmes said. “I was a lost soul for many, many years. This is the foundation I always needed and always craved.”

Housing insecurity in Denver

The 2018 #RealCollege survey found that two-thirds of survey respondents at participating colleges and universities in Denver experienced at least one of these forms of basic needs insecurity in the past year:

- 40% of respondents experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days

- 55% of respondents experienced housing insecurity in the previous year

- 18% of respondents experienced homelessness in the previous year

Read the full #RealCollege survey report for Denver.

The #RealCollege survey is the nation's largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students. It began in 2015 under the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and is now administered by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.


Step up

“This ain’t gonna work. Somebody needs to step up.”

Those were Holmes’ words last April when she learned that there were initially no candidates running for the next SGA presidential term. She stepped up, ran and defeated one other candidate. Now, she’s dedicating her efforts to making it easier for others to step up in their lives and education, just as she has her entire life.

After enduring child abuse, growing up a ward of the state and aging out of state care, Holmes found a way to survive by getting married and starting a family at a young age. She divorced her husband but soon found herself in an abusive relationship with another man. Again, she made the decision to survive, leaving her abuser behind with the help of the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program, a private scholarship fund for survivors of intimate-partner abuse who pursue higher education.

Holmes landed in Colorado in early 2016 looking for a fresh start. While staying in a domestic-violence shelter in Boulder, she enrolled at Front Range Community College and tried to find affordable housing while paying out-of-state tuition.

“I got an apartment with low-income housing, and it was still $1,000 a month,” she recalled.

Then, she learned her special-needs teenage daughter who stayed in Virginia was close to becoming a state ward herself. Holmes stepped up again and petitioned the courts for custody.

After she earned full custody of her daughter, Holmes applied for the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, a Boulder County initiative that helps low-income families obtain education and career skills. The program lowered her out-of-pocket rent to less than $300.

Danielle Holmes, president of MSU Denver
Danielle Holmes, president of MSU Denver's Student Government Assembly, wants to shape legislation related to social issues such as food and housing insecurity. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

“Without the support of that housing program, I couldn’t afford to be (SGA) president,” said Holmes, 38, who couldn’t work full time while going to school full time and caring for her daughter. “There’s no wiggle room at all.”

At MSU Denver, Holmes receives support from the EPIC Scholars program, which supports independent students at the University who have gone through foster care or are otherwise self-supporting. The program offers stipends for eligible students in good academic standing. MSU Denver also established a Student Emergency Fund last spring for students in need, providing one-time funding for those who find themselves in unexpected financial crises such as inability to pay rent.

Sobering statistics

The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice’s #RealCollege Survey Report surveyed more than 85,000 students last year and found that 56% of respondents had been housing-insecure in the previous year, with 17% reporting homelessness.

“There’s a perfect storm of under-resourced students from under-resourced families in under-resourced institutions of higher education,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of The Hope Center and professor of higher education policy at Temple University. She presented the #RealCollege Survey Report at MSU Denver on April 26.

RELATED: Getting real about hunger and homelessness on campus

This month, the center released its special report focusing specifically on students in Denver. Respondents included more than 3,000 students from MSU Denver, Community College of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Denver.

It found 55% of Denver students experienced housing insecurity, while 18% had been homeless in the previous year. The report also found higher rates of housing insecurity among women (57%), veterans (59%), parents (62%), students of color (58% Latino, 64% black), LGBTQ students (65%) and foster-care alumni (82%).

Overall, food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness are overlapping concerns, the report said. Some 66% of those surveyed in Denver experienced at least one of these forms of basic-needs insecurity in the past year.

Moving beyond survival

After Holmes finishes her political science degree next May, she wants to shape public policy related to food and housing insecurity.

She has already influenced state legislation as a student – Holmes worked with Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) on HB18-1319, which established the Former Foster Care Youth Steering Committee within the Colorado Department of Human Services. The committee is tasked with developing long-term provision of services for successful adulthood for former foster-care youth.

She represented Front Range on Colorado’s State Student Advisory Council before transferring to MSU Denver, and after being elected as SGA president she participated in a Colorado Department of Higher Education workshop on food insecurity this summer.

RELATED: Sean Peters struggled with homelessness. Now he's living his dream as owner of Peak View Brewing Co.

She credits education with stoking her passion for helping others, and she doesn’t plan on leaving school anytime soon – she’s applying to a dozen law schools.

“I’m forever blessed by my education and want to obtain more and more.”

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