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When Jason Pettit started school at Fort Lewis College in the fall of 2020, his home was his Ford Ranger pickup and wherever he felt safe enough to park.

Sometimes that was at a trailhead on the outskirts of the city. Sometimes it was in the parking lot of Walmart. 

Pettit liked the trailheads more, because even though people might see his truck there, they didn’t necessarily know why it was there. “I could have been out hiking late or early,” he said. People do that a lot in the mountain town of roughly 20,000 people. The Walmart parking lot, illuminated by bright lights throughout the night, made Pettit feel exposed.

Pettit slept in the bed of his truck, which a camper shell covered. The shell didn’t lock, “but, I mean, I could kind of barricade myself inside,” he said. “Still, someone could have been like, ‘There’s a guy in there. Let’s go bug him.’” 

And neither of these spots had a toilet or a shower. So Pettit made a map of the best convenience store bathrooms in Durango and Fort Lewis classroom buildings with showers, noting that Speedway convenience stores are “generally very clean” and the Fort Lewis biology department has a shower. 

Jason Pettit climbs out of his Toyota Tacoma on May 3 in Durango. He previously lived in a Ford Ranger while attending Fort Lewis College as a nontraditional student. His Tacoma is similarly equipped for camping. (Josh Stephenson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pettit’s first semester wasn’t too cold, so sleeping in the truck was bearable. But when he returned to Durango from his home in Texas after Christmas break, it was much colder — the average high in January is 39 degrees, the low 11 degrees. Unable to withstand those conditions, he started sleeping in the student lounge of the biology building, but that was hard, too — the sneaking in and looking like you were supposed to be there as close to 11 p.m. when the groundskeeper locked the doors each night, and then trying to catch some sleep on a couch before waking up at 6 the following morning, to sneak a shower and leave the building before the maintenance crew groundskeeper re-opened the building at 7, he said.

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Pettit has an abundance of the kind of grit required to survive these extraordinary conditions. But Fort Lewis is tackling a college homelessness crisis with the belief that no student — no matter their age, demographic or ability to endure hardship — should have to weather the things Pettit has had to for an education. 

“Students are resilient and hard working, and they shouldn’t have to struggle through truly hard circumstances like homelessness to get a degree,” said Stella Zhu, a former research fellow at the National Institute of Health and food pantry coordinator at University of California Berkeley, who was hired in February 2022 to address Fort Lewis students’ basic housing and food needs.

In recent years, some other Colorado colleges have been working to address student homelessness, including the University of Colorado, which provides education on available housing resources and referrals to the appropriate on- or off-campus services; the University of Colorado Denver, which offers emergency funds for temporary housing; Colorado State University, which offers rent and utilities assistance, helps with off-campus housing searches and assists students with housing vouchers; and Red Rocks Community College tried to partner with The Action Center in Lakewood on a shelter to house homeless students, but the project ultimately failed due to COVID, a spokesperson said. 

The nonprofit Hide in Plain Sight plans to use a $50,000 matching-fund grant from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative to help some of Colorado’s reported 15,000 homeless students. And Benjamin Brewer, Fort Lewis’ presidential communications fellow, said this spring, staff from basic needs programs at colleges across the state formed a working group to share resources and learn best practices in the realms of housing and food acquisition for students, even as more funding is needed. 


How many college students in Colorado are reported to be experiencing homelessness

But Fort Lewis is the only Colorado college to institute a rapid rehousing program, which, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is a technique for ending homelessness that provides short-term rental assistance and helps people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency and stay housed with the aid of financial assistance and case management services. And with rising inflation impacting the cost of living, the ever-increasing price of a college education and the pandemic’s effect on housing stock and rental prices across Durango, the program is sorely needed.

College homelessness is a many-tentacled issue rife with social stigma. But statistics show that a year after starting its program, Fort Lewis is making headway to address its own homelessness problems by helping more than 100 students obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency and stay housed — a tough challenge in a rural mountain community. 

College student homelessness in the U.S. and at Fort Lewis 

At 50, Jason Pettit is considered a nontraditional student, but at Fort Lewis he is just one person in a sea of nontraditional students.

More than half of Fort Lewis students identify as a minority, with 44% identifying as Alaskan Natives or affiliated with American Indian tribes, 14% Hispanic and 1% either Asian or Black. About Roughly one-third of all students qualify for federal Pell Grants, awarded to students whose families make less than $60,000 annually. And nearly half of all Skyhawks are the first in their families to pursue higher education, compared with 10% at the University of Colorado, 20% at Western Colorado University and almost 25% at Colorado State University. 

For years, Fort Lewis leaders saw students struggling to attend classes without safe, reliable housing. But they didn’t know how deep the problem ran until 2019, when the school joined in the #RealCollege survey conducted by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. The survey is the largest assessment of college students’ basic needs ever conducted. 

Between 2015 and 2021, The Hope Center distributed the survey to more than 500 colleges and universities and over 500,000 students across the U.S. The goal was to determine gaps in student need and provide actionable data that higher education institutions could use to remedy their insufficiencies.   

By 2018, the Hope survey had been distributed to 86,000 students from 123 two- and four-year colleges and universities. Results published in 2019 showed that nearly half of respondents had experienced housing insecurity and 17% had been homeless during the previous year.  

A woman stocks food in a pantry.
Stella Zhu stocks shelves with locally sourced non-perishable items at the Grub Hub food pantry on the campus of Fort Lewis College in Durango May 5, 2023. Zhu is a basic needs coordinator at the college working to assist students who are experiencing food and housing insecurity. (Josh Stephenson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Several Colorado students are quoted in the survey, including one who wrote, “I’m considering killing myself so I don’t have to suffer through struggling to be part of such an unrealistic workforce.”

According to statistics provided by Fort Lewis, 45% of students surveyed said they’d been “housing insecure,” meaning they were unable to pay rent or utilities or needed to move frequently in the previous year, and 28% said they’d been “homeless,” indicating they were living in a place not meant for human habitation, had lost a nighttime residence or were unstably housed with children. The group also includes those fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence with no other residence and no resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing. 

Of those who indicated homelessness, 30% were male, 27% were female and 50% identified as nonbinary. The largest groups reporting homelessness were Black, at 39%, Middle Eastern/North African, at 30%, white at 29%, and American Indian or Alaska Natives at 28%. 


The percentage of Fort Lewis students who said
they’d been “housing insecure”


The percentage of Fort Lewis students who said
they’d been “homeless”

“But it was interesting,” Zhu said, “because if you asked a student if they were homeless, they would say no, but if you asked if they were couch surfing or living in a car, they’d say yes.” 

The survey used both statement questions and yes/no ones. Pettit said the statements were easier for people to answer because the idea of homelessness evokes shame. “Like, for me, I’m much more comfortable talking about my addiction problems than being homeless.”

Jeff Dupont, Fort Lewis’ dean of student engagement, said, “Camping and couch surfing, along with the lack of housing supply in our mountain community, has always been a part of Fort Lewis’ narrative.” But in 2019, armed with the survey data, school leaders saw the issue needed immediate attention. “If our students couldn’t have basic needs to succeed, what could we do about it?” he said. The answer was threefold. 

Since 2010, Fort Lewis had worked on the problem of food insecurity with a student-run Grub Hub Food Pantry. Following the survey, the college increased institutional support of the Grub Hub. In 2021, it was moved into a much larger space in the Student Union building and housed professional staff for student support. The pantry is funded by grants, donors and student activity fees. And it’s open to all students, staff and faculty, with no requirement to prove need. Grub Hub helps students access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to purchase food from most grocery stores, some farmer’s markets and online vendors.

In February 2022, Fort Lewis hired Zhu as the school’s first basic needs administrator, with a focus on rapid rehousing. 

Zhu’s position was initially paid for through institutional funds, Brewer said. But once Zhu and Dupont could demonstrate her impact, they were able to present a student fee proposal that provided a more permanent source of funding for the position while also securing significant grant funding. The Board of Trustees approved the student fee proposal in spring 2022 and initiated it the following fall. The total budget for the basic needs program is about $120,000 with $60,000 a year coming from student fees, and the rest from grants and foundation funding.

Once the program was in place, “all students had (and still have) to do was reach out to Stella and set up a meeting to discuss their situation and create an action plan,” Brewer said. “Documentation is kept upon the case’s opening and afterward, but is not required for entering the program.”

a man standing outside of a building in the snow.
a man in a blue jacket standing in a cluttered shed.

LEFT: Jason Pettit walks into an unheated tool and storage shed he once lived in on Feb. 23 in Durango. The shed offered him a break from sleeping in his truck. RIGHT: Pettit stands inside the shed. Colorado’s minimum wage of $13.65 an hour makes it difficult to afford rent with the city’s high cost of living. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Jason Pettit walks inside a unheated tool and storage shed where he used to live on Feb. 23 in Durango. The shed offered him a break from sleeping in his truck. BOTTOM: Pettit stands inside the shed. Colorado’s minimum wage of $13.65 an hour makes it difficult to afford rent in the city’s high cost of living. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Zhu and the founding of a program to help homeless students at Fort Lewis 

By the time The Hope Center’s results came out, 6-foot-1-inch Pettit had graduated from living in the bed of his truck to living in an unheated shed with a 6-foot-2-inch-high ceiling under a house owned by an acquaintance.

It was a far cry from the places he’d lived and the life he’d had before he came to Fort Lewis. From his teens into his adulthood, he’d been a highly sought-after trumpet player who’d won prestigious awards and played in a constant stream of jazz bands, chamber orchestras and opera orchestras. He’d gone to — and dropped out of — DePaul University. He’d played in the U.S. Air Force Premier Band as an enlisted member. But in the Air Force, he started drinking, a habit that got increasingly worse and led to his decommissioning from the military and trouble with the law. It wasn’t until 2019, during probation, that he decided to stop drinking and try to “leave his old life behind.” One way to do so was to return to college to finish what he’d started. He’d heard that Durango was a cool town so he applied to and was accepted at Fort Lewis. 

Wanting to save money, he’d gritted through living in his truck, and now he was in the shed. He says his new living space was good, because even though it was dark and cold, it was at least a safe place to lay his head. What he didn’t have was a designated spot, at school or at home, to put his books, computer and other class materials. “Everything I needed for any given day was in my backpack,” he said. “I’d have to find places around campus no one was using. If I found a desk (in the library, for example), I could lay my stuff out. But then, ‘Oops. I gotta go now.’” And he’d have to load it all up again. 

All of this was getting old by the winter of 2022. And Pettit, like other students who endure extended periods of homelessness, was growing weary. That was two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, when college students across the country reported overwhelming anxiety and depression. Those feelings heightened as the virus spread and the world fell into chaos. And according to The Mayo Clinic, one in three college students still experiences significant depression and anxiety.  

Homeless college students experience all of the above with poorer physical health. They’re statistically less likely to persist in their studies and drop out at higher rates than their peers. Staying in school amid the challenges of living without a stable home takes incredible grit and resilience. 

Pettit was running low on resiliency when Zhu began working at Fort Lewis. Her first job: Quickly implement a rapid rehousing program at the school to help alleviate homelessness. 

1 in 3

How many college students still experience significant depression and anxiety after the pandemic

Zhu said at Fort Lewis, the first step in rapid rehousing is to give students “who just don’t have a place to lie down temporary shelter in a building with rooms containing multiple bunks, if they are OK with co-ed living, or in a hotel or motel if they need something more private.” 

Step two is to transition them into permanent housing and provide help with rent, security deposits and utilities.

And step three is to give them case management support with any other services they might need. “That can be helping them catch up on lost class time,” Zhu said. “Or if they’re like, OK, now I’m in a stable housing situation and I want to be financially independent, we can help them with that, too.”  

Financial independence — working your way through college when you have no other source of income — can come with its own set of issues, Zhu said. “Being a full-time student with classes, you’re already doing 40 hours of work a week. There’s a lot of advocacy right now to get the additional work requirements removed for students needing financial help because it’s super-prohibitive.”

At Fort Lewis, eligible Native American students can attend college tuition-free, but they still have to cover student fees, room and board, books and other educational needs. Like many Fort Lewis students, some of these Native students will take out student loans. Even with a low, fixed interest rate, the cost of doing so can be enormous 10 years down the road. So, sometimes, when a student, regardless of their race, is struggling with food and housing insecurity, Zhu will ask if continuing school at the moment is the best decision. Initiating a conversation like that is never easy, she said, but it’s the reality for a lot of people.

“It’s like, home might have been unsafe before you came here, or you might have been unhoused before you came here, and now you have on-campus housing and it’s safe, so why would you want to leave that?” she said. “But at the same time we have to be realistic. With the burdens you’re carrying outside of school, are you going to be successful here? Or is staying, even with housing, going to make you carry on more burdens for the rest of your life?” 

Jason Pettit stands inside the kitchen of an apartment he was able to rent with help from Fort Lewis College’s rapid rehousing program. He later left the apartment and moved in with a Durango resident partnering with the college in its rehousing effort. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

How Zhu, Fort Lewis and rapid rehousing helped a housing-insecure student graduate 

For Pettit, it was the other way around — he took out loans for education, but didn’t want to take them out for housing. He also balked at the idea of working 40 hours a week, the amount it would take, at Colorado’s minimum wage of $13.65 an hour, to afford one of its lowest-cost apartments. Add utilities, food, transportation up the hill from town to school and back plus other miscellaneous expenses, and working while going to school to afford the kind of living situation that favors success in school was all but impossible, he said.  

As an older student, newly sober and seeking a life change at the age of 47 when he started, Pettit said working for housing while carrying a full load would have caused him to struggle academically and “not get a lot out of the college experience.” 

But before Zhu arrived, the alternative wasn’t helping him either. 

In August 2022, the acquaintance letting him live rent-free in his basement shed asked him to move out. Pettit’s next shelter was a storage unit that cost $65 a month. That wasn’t much better than the bed of his pickup, he said, “because I wasn’t allowed to be there, so it was tricky.” Finally, during a therapy session at school, he admitted he needed help. “By then Stella was here, doing her magic work.” 

a man who is standing chats with a woman sitting at a kitchen counter.
a man standing in a bedroom hangs up a graduation gown

LEFT: Jason Pettit speaks with Kathleen Adams in her Durango home where he currently resides. RIGHT: Pettit hangs his graduation gown in his room. (Photos by Josh Stephenson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Jason Pettit speaks with Kathleen Adams in her Durango home where he currently resides. BOTTOM: Pettit hangs his graduation gown in his room. (Photos by Josh Stephenson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He approached her, shared his story and found himself in a room on campus with eight beds and one other student. Two weeks later and with rental assistance, he was living in a small apartment not far from the house with the basement shed. And this spring, he has lived rent-free with a Durango resident (not a student) named Kathleen Adams, who opened up her house to the rapid rehousing program after learning about it at her church.

“Luckily, I had solo time in the apartment, that continuous time where I was like, ‘Whoa! I can feel the difference on how much better you can focus,’” Pettit said. “It’s hard to do in a shared space. If Kathleen is using the internet it’s hard for me to. So there are different kinds of stresses, but I have a bathroom and a shower, which is amazing after living out of my car.” 

His current grade point average is 3.5 and he graduated Saturday with a degree in psychology.

Jason Pettit tries on his cap and gown. He graduated with a degree in psychology Saturday. (Josh Stephenson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“All of my teachers liked me, too,” he said. Being a teaching assistant in his psychology of addiction class was also fulfilling. “At the end of every term, students can review both the class and the professor. There were some really, really nice comments about me where students said having me as their TA was like having a living primary source in class. Just being in school and learning so much, even if my GPA was nothing, I still have so much knowledge in my head.” 

The rapid rehousing program helped 108 students in its first year, with emergency hotel stays, financial assistance for move-in and related costs and help with rent and utilities. All of the students were housed within 24 hours of contacting Zhu. Only one spent longer than two months in temporary housing. And 75 of the 108 cases were closed when students’ housing stabilized and they no longer needed financial assistance. 

As the spring semester came to a close, Zhu was “dealing with a high volume of requests from students leaving campus housing and needing immediate solutions for the summer,” Brewer said.

Pettit is leaving Fort Lewis stronger and better than he’s been since he played trumpet in the Air Force band. 

24 hours

How quickly each students was housed after asking for help

One could even argue that he is coming out of his degree a stronger asset for society, because his daughter, in Texas, recently exited the prison system and he is going home to live with her on land belonging to a friend, to support her as she transitions back into society. His friend wants him to start a nature therapy program for recovering addicts on the property. Pettit plans to do that and get a master’s degree in social work. 

He said his time at Fort Lewis, help from Zhu and assistance finding safe, secure housing while immersing himself in the school’s academics and community have prepared him for it.  

“I felt like the whole Fort Lewis community was a part of my sobriety,” he said. “Everyone was really nice and open and nonjudgmental if I talked about the fact that I had done all this drinking before. You don’t think about it because I’ve moved down the path a bit, but the whole experience added up to helping a person making changes. I’m different than I was before. I feel like I have a new life.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated May 7, 2023, at 2:10 p.m. to correct the percentage of Fort Lewis College students who identify as Native American or Alaskan Native. In fall of 2022, about 44% of the school’s students, representing 185 tribes and Alaskan villages, qualified for Fort Lewis’ Native American Tuition Waiver program.

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...