When Allison “Allie” Short tells people she’s homeless, they often look at her with surprise.
The 23-year-old West Chester University student points out that she doesn’t wear shoes that are too big, or have holes in her clothes. She doesn’t display any of the stereotypical signs.
That, in itself, is a message she will be sending on a more high-profile stage in the coming year after being named Miss West Chester University this month.
She has chosen homelessness as her platform. And she’ll wear a crown while talking about it.
“One of my goals as Miss WCU is to educate on homelessness,” said Short, a social-work major with a minor in women and gender studies, “because there are a lot of homeless individuals on this campus, and people aren’t really aware of it and don’t always speak in nice terms about it.”
Short is one of about 70 West Chester students on the 17,700-student campus who are homeless or former foster-care youth, said Tori Nuccio, interim associate director of financial aid. Nearly 50 of them, including Short, seek support through West Chester’s Promise Program, which Nuccio oversees. The program provides year-round housing, priority tutoring help, scholarships for summer and winter courses, as well as gap funding for meals, books, and other needs. The program is donor-funded.
“The support I received has made it possible for me to receive my education and reach my goals,” said Short, who touted the program at the contest.
Nuccio was thrilled to see Short win the Miss WCU title.
“She is going to be bringing attention to her peers and to the statewide problem itself,” Nuccio said.
A report released by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found 17% of students who responded to a national survey said they were homeless in the last year, nearly 40% said they were “food insecure,” and almost half faced housing insecurity.
“Money weighs heavily on students’ minds, and without a safe place to sleep and enough to eat they cannot concentrate on learning,” said Temple professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the center.
Short said she became homeless at 18 and has lived in a shelter and more than one transitional housing complex. As a junior at West Chester, she now lives full time at the university, spending summers and breaks in the dorm where she also works as a resident assistant, which entitles her to free housing during the school year.
But if she were not in school, she’d have no permanent housing, and therefore is considered homeless. She qualifies for federal and state aid and is on a full-tuition academic scholarship through West Chester.
She declined to publicly discuss why she is homeless. Her parents and sister are still in her life, she said. They attended the Miss West Chester contest.
“My family is extremely supportive,” she said, “… even though I am unable to live with them. I see them often.”
The “why” she is homeless, she added, doesn’t matter. Everyone’s circumstance is unique.
Nuccio said sometimes students come from abusive families. Sometimes it’s a problem with addiction or mental-health struggles. Other times, it’s a pure lack of financial resources despite hard work.
“At end of the day, [the why] is not important,” Nuccio told Short. “Where you are heading now is way more important.”
Short is active on campus: She’s in the social-work honor society, the honors seminar program, and a service organization. She also volunteers regularly at a local homeless shelter, providing child care, answering emails, and helping out however else she can. Short excels academically and hopes to become a trauma-focused therapist.
She was among more than a dozen students who vied for the Miss West Chester University title. Contestants danced, wore evening gowns, answered questions, and displayed a talent. She played the piano, talked about the help she got through the Promise Program, and offered her definition of a good leader: “Someone who helps people get on the path so they can lead rather than a dictatorship.”
The honor is a significant responsibility, said Marion McKinney, senior director of residence life and housing services.
“We are looking for a woman who is going to change the trajectory of our campus and lead and educate on what her platform is,” she said.
Over her one-year reign, she’ll speak on campus, appear in parades, and show up at community events, all the while using the platform to talk about an issue she knows firsthand.
“I want people to know that [homelessness] is still a problem even if you are not aware of it,” said Short, who wore her crown during an interview on campus Thursday. “The stereotypes are not always accurate.”