It is hard to define which set of needs housing satisfies. At one level, a physical shelter offers us necessary protection from the elements. On another, our houses provide us the infrastructure which we use to thrive; running water, heating, electricity, even Wi-Fi. Moreover, we ideally see our homes as safe spaces in which we can exercise our right to privacy and find a haven from the busy world outside. Our homes represent a social space in which we can invite others to learn and grow with as well as keep intruders out. All together, our houses and the homes we create within are a symbol of our identity, a place to belong, and the manifestation of a search for safety in an otherwise chaotic world. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs exemplifies the interconnection between these different roles, more can be read about this here.
What then might be the consequences when this symbol is in danger of being taken away from us? How do a person’s capabilities change when confronted with this possibility? Are there physical changes in a person’s body that occur when their home is threatened? This last question underpins the first two and is what we aim to explore.
Two distinct scenarios highlight the possible effects, the first: the homeless nomad; be it through eviction or moving to an area with a lack of housing. The second: the potential of eviction.
Initially, let us imagine a homeless nomad who has arrived in a foreign land and is unable to find any suitable accommodation, be it by lack of supply or due to the unaffordability of housing. How has their body changed as a response to their housing situation? It is typical to look at the psychological effects of unstable housing. We can empathize with a homeless person, understanding that we too would not feel great, to put it lightly. However, often this empathy comes with a subtle judgment, they could do something about it, right? Without analyzing the different situations in which someone might have arrived at homelessness, let us look at how homelessness can invoke a physical state which hampers a person’s ability to succeed, or in this case find a home. Apart from the material disadvantages to homelessness, unstable housing can act as a stressor in a person’s life.
Stressors are situations that invoke the stress response in the body i.e. they prime the body to take flight or fight. Which events might provoke a stress response differs from person to person but typically they are characterized by a threat that is perceived as having the capacity to undermine your ability to fulfil your needs, be they physical, emotional, or psychological. Including individuals’ unique reactions, a lack of housing can be understood as a universal stressor. One which, through an unfortunate reality of our biology, can continue to provoke the stress response until the situation is satisfactorily resolved. More can be read about the ins and outs of the stress response here.
How then does the stressed state impact the body? Through a complex array of interactions between the nervous system, hormones, and brain the body is forced into a hyper-alert state. This can happen so quickly that the conscious mind may not yet have had the opportunity to perceive the danger. In the past, it was more important to run away from the tiger than to recognize which species of tiger was about to eat you. The activation of the alert state (done so by the sympathetic nervous system) disables several other physiological functions (namely those governed by the parasympathetic nervous system) such as the ability to rest, reflect, and even hampers your cognitive performance. One study highlights that there is a certain level of stress-induced hormones which may aid cognitive performance, however, these levels are attained when the stress reaction is acute, not chronic. In the case of a chronic stress reaction, the effect on cognition is considered damaging. The same study shows that there is a specific and clear relationship between stress and memory. With acute stress focusing attention and so memory on the stressor, at the cost of a person being able to recall other events which were happening simultaneously. While chronic stress has been found to have damaging effects on memory recall overall. More about the study can be read here.
We might then consider the homeless university student (as a homeless nomad) in specific and then the renting university student in general.
For the homeless university student, having just arrived in their new city of study, they face an acute impairment in their ability to focus and learn about whichever university course they find themselves facing at first. Stressors work in a hierarchical order (this can be seen in how we understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and so the lack of living space is prioritized over achieving high grades (despite our professor’s best attempts). If the situation is alleviated quickly study progress may be caught up on. The degree of work needed to do so and damage done to the morale of these students is surely case-specific, yet, significant by all means.
In general, the university student struggling between the choice of paying rent or eating more than beans is not a new image, I have been there myself. Although the acute stressor of current homelessness is not present, the potential of eviction looms ever-present in the not-so-distant future. This possibility can activate a stress response much the same way as an immediate reality has the capabilities to do so. So then the homeless university student has escaped the acute stresses of homelessness and entered into the chronic stress which renting generously provides. It may be a different story if tales of students being taken advantage of or paying exorbitant prices for tiny rooms were not so common. Unfortunately, they are.
The reality is, homelessness current or looming, changes our physiological state; in a manner which is not conducive for learning. Unless the situation is altered the induced stress response will hamper the body’s cognitive performance. This seems to clash with the academic meritocracy we find ourselves in. The sentiment underpinning meritocracy may be an attempted movement in the right direction, however amidst the current housing crisis, how does this sentiment hold up? How valid is it to expect the homeless university student to perform with the same capacity as the safely housed? How appropriate is a BSA? The BSA was reduced last year due to corona should it too be reduced due to the housing crisis?