When Armen Papyan’s family home burned down, he found it ironic.

A budding politician and student body president at University of Washington’s Tacoma campus, Papyan had been advocating for homeless students since high school. As a junior at Foster High in Tukwila, he went to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and asked the governor not to cut services for couch-surfing students.

Now as a freshman at UW Tacoma, homelessness was happening to him. His Armenian immigrant family was large, and housing costs in the region were soaring day by day. He spent six months on friends’ and families’ couches, and getting to Tacoma via public transit was hard.

“You have to think about how you’re going to get to class. You have to think about who’s driving,” Papyan said. The memory of that fire and the time after has never left him: “You still remember the whole thing burning down in your face.”

Experiences like Papyan’s aren’t rare. A new survey shows the clichéd “broke student” at UW’s three campuses is in more dire shape than previously known: An estimated 5,000 students reported that they spent nights in a car, shelter, tent or at a friend’s in the year leading up to the survey because they had nowhere else to stay.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

An estimated 160 students currently live in a car, shelter or tent. About 10,000 students cut the size of their meals or skipped meals to keep costs down, and 7% have skipped eating for entire days because they didn’t have the money.

The survey is based on a sample of about 10% of UW’s student body, and weighted to project and draw conclusions about all of UW’s undergraduate and graduate student population.

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“That’s not just eating ramen,” said Rachel Fyall, one of the authors of the survey and faculty chair of UW’s homelessness research initiative. “No one expects students to be wealthy, but if their basic needs are inhibiting their ability to access higher education … it does lead to the question of, ‘Are we doing enough?'”

Student poverty and hunger is becoming a high-profile issue in America as more and more first-generation students from working-class backgrounds go to college. A national survey released last week said  45 % of student respondents from more than 100 colleges had been food insecure in the past 30 days.

A student shops at the Any Hungry Husky campus food pantry in Poplar Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle.   (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
A student shops at the Any Hungry Husky campus food pantry in Poplar Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

High tuition is part of it, but rent increases also seem a likely culprit: The UW survey projected that 21% of students had seen a rent increase in the past year, and had difficulty paying rent. The university recently demolished its cheapest, oldest dorms and replaced them with more expensive housing, which many students have protested; UW insisted in a statement that housing rates are agreed to by student leadership beforehand.

At the Tacoma campus, student organizers like Papyan worked to get more than 50 new apartment units opened in January just for homeless students, subsidized by Tacoma Housing Authority.

University faculty and administration have worked to make sure students don’t have to go without food. In November, the university opened a food pantry at its Seattle campus, open four days a week. Between November and May, about 500 students made 1,700 visits, staff said.

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Alisa, a 27-year-old graduate student studying public administration at UW who didn’t want her last name used, is one of those 500. When she went back to school last fall, she thought she’d penciled it all out: work part-time at a nonprofit and live in a mother-in-law rental in a backyard in Georgetown. But after a few weeks, she realized that wasn’t realistic. She’d gotten used to working full-time, and expenses were adding up fast.

Student volunteers Cole Purcell, left, and Wesley McLain stock beet greens, one of the seasonal fresh produce options this week from the UW Farm, at the Any Hungry Husky campus food pantry at the University of Washington.  (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Student volunteers Cole Purcell, left, and Wesley McLain stock beet greens, one of the seasonal fresh produce options this week from the UW Farm, at the Any Hungry Husky campus food pantry at the University of Washington. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Then she found out about the food bank. On Thursday, she walked in around 3:30 p.m. It’s that time in the quarter when the number of shoppers is starting to rise, volunteers said; students are starting to realize their dining money isn’t going to last them through finals.

Alisa grabs beans, canned vegetables, snack bars and a can of coconut milk.

“Probably for a curry,” she said. “Trader Joe’s has brown rice that’s pretty cheap.”

Throw that in her slow cooker, she said, and she can make it last for days.