Homelessness at George Mason University: 'It Does Exist'

It's hard to believe, but it's true—and this student fought for nearly two years to help get these fellow students fed.

George Mason University student Yara Mowafy pours over a 2,000-signature petition she started to help get homeless students at GMU fed. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut/Patch)
George Mason University student Yara Mowafy pours over a 2,000-signature petition she started to help get homeless students at GMU fed. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut/Patch)

It goes without saying that college in the 21st century is expensive.

For some students, it’s so expensive that, after paying their tuition bill, there’s not enough left over for a roof over their heads, or a meal in their belly—but to them, the chance at a quality education is worth the struggle.

One student at Fairfax’s George Mason University, Yara Mowafy, made the discovery last year that there are homeless students on her campus, and for the next 18 months, she fought to get the university to support a program to help make sure they don’t go hungry.

Now, students and the community can donate to an account that provides meals for homeless students. 

It wasn’t the route Mowafy envisioned this program taking. In the beginning, it was just a class project.

A Class Project That Became So Much More

Mowafy, now a senior at GMU studying international development, was given an assignment by her public speaking professor in Spring 2012 to describe a real-world problem that she is passionate about; one on which she could realistically make an impact.

Her idea started small: simply wondering what happens to unused meals in the meal plan program used by students who live on campus.

At GMU, students who lived in the dorms are required to purchase meal plans, Mowafy said. Some choose a semester-long plan, and others choose a weekly plan. Based on the plan, students are given a meal card and a certain number of “meal swipes” for that time period.

However, unused meal swipes didn’t roll over. As unused meals were set to expire, they’d buy meals for their friends or dorm-mates.  She thought, what if those students could donate their unused meals to other students in need?

Some research showed that other universities were doing something with those wasted dollars on meal plans. Some donated them to local shelters or students in need on campus, others let students roll the meals over.

“They all had differences, but they all had some type of system created to accommodate this issue of unused meal plans,” Mowafy said.

Initial suggestions and meetings with meal card program managers at Mason Dining fell flat, Mowafy said, but she was more convinced than ever—this would be the project she would complete for her public speaking class.

Discovering There Were Homeless Students at GMU

Mowafy decided to talk to a few local shelters to see if they had any ideas, including Facets, a local nonprofit organization that provides emergency shelter and other types of assistance to people in the Fairfax area.

It was there that Mowafy learned that there were homeless students at GMU.

“They told me that there are homeless students that come to them for assistance,” she recalled. “It’s not frequent, but they said, 'it does exist.'"

Mowafy consulted a few on-campus departments to see if the school was aware of the problem, and said several departments did confirm it.

An engineering professor said a student had confessed to her that at night, he sleeps in the auditorium or one of the concert halls, among a few other spots on campus.

A fellow student who volunteered at Facets told Mowafy that, at her best guess, there were at least 12 homeless students at GMU at the time, based on the number who had come to Facets that year for assistance.

Mowafy knew that meant there could be even more.

“Not everybody speaks out about it. It can be very humiliating,” she said.

They told her, the students were all employed full-time, but all of their income went toward tuition, and they had little, if anything, left for housing or food.

Upon learning this, Mowafy said she was inspired to approach the university once more about trying to create a program to help them, by allowing students to donate their unused meals.

Crunching the Numbers

In August of last year, Mowafy approached Mason Dining again—but once again, they shot her down, for a number of reasons, she said.

A university staff member provided Mowafy with some statistics, that told her approximately how many meals were going unused each year.

Depending on the plan, the staff member told her that anywhere from 7 to 25 percent of meals went unused in 2011. It ranged from 7 percent of semester-long plans, to up to 25 percent of weekly plans, Mowafy said. The plans usually consist of 15 meals per week, or three per day on Mondays through Fridays.

Mowafy said she was told that Sodexo, GMU’s contracted food provider, already factors in the number of unused meals into its budget, so spending unused meals on the homeless would mean raising prices for everyone.

Since they weren’t willing to listen to one person, Mowafy thought—maybe they would be willing to listen to a few thousand.

Gathering Support From Fellow Patriots

It was then that Mowafy met Jordan Bivings, who was just as passionate about finding a way to help feed the school's underprivileged students as she was. Since 2011, Bivings had been organizing efforts through her club Mason Meals to collect canned and nonperishable food items and assemble meals for needy students. The two decided to team up.

Mowafy, who is the president of her campus’s Oxfam America chapter, decided to start a petition with Bivings to show how many students would be willing to donate their meal plans if there was a way for them to do it.

It wasn’t long before they had 2,000 signatures.

They then drafted a proposal to go along with their petition that suggested the campus make donating unused meal plans voluntary, and perhaps something the students could indicate by checking a box when they sign up for and pay for their meal plans online through the GMU website.

Mowafy approached the Student Government. They discussed the possibility of putting the idea—not the implementation, but at least the idea—of her proposal up to a vote, to gauge student support.

The government voted unanimously, yes.

“This was big for me. Finally someone was listening,” Mowafy said, of earning the Student Government’s support.

Big Change On Campus

Around that time, school administration announced that the on-campus dining program will soon change to “24/7 Dining.” Beginning in the fall of 2014, meal swipes will be replaced with a flat fee per day that allows unlimited access to food at certain campus eateries.

In essence, the new program will mean there is no longer such a thing as unused meals.

“I thought, so this whole thing is out the window. I don't know what I can do now,” she said.

Around that time, the former, unsupportive director of Mason Dining left his job; Mowafy set up an appointment with his successor to present her proposal and petition.

It was the new director of Mason Dining who offered a suggestion: Mowafy and Bivings could set up a university account to collect monetary donations that could be used to buy meals for students in need—and he would even make the first $1,000 deposit.

With the help of the Student Support and Case Management Office on campus, Mowafy and Bivings started an account to benefit students in need. The account was initially called the Patriot 2 Patriot Fund (now the Student Meal Assistance Fund).

Now, they are hard at work soliciting donations to keep the account up and running and helping more students.

Though the project didn’t turn out quite the way she had envisioned it, Mowafy is thrilled that her hard work—more than 18 months’ worth—has paid off, and students in need are getting help.

“After two years, something is finally happening,” she said. “It's not the ideal; I didn't want it to have to [involve monetary donations], but it's something.”

Mowafy is also trying hard to spread word of the program; to try and shine a light on the homeless or needy students that no one knows about, or who may think there is no help out there for them.

“My worry is that there are students like this who aren't speaking out, who are afraid; and who don't know about this new resource,” she said.

If you wish to make a donation to the Student Meal Assistance Fund, or to refer a student in need for assistance, click here for instructions.

Contact Yara Mowafy at yelmowaf@masonlive.gmu.edu for more information.

What do you think is the answer to helping homeless or students in need at GMU? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.


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Claire Forman November 27, 2013 at 10:22 AM
Here is a link anyone can copy/paste into their browser to support the fund: https://www.gmufoundation.org/fndtapps/contribute/donatecyber.cfm
Jody December 01, 2013 at 09:25 PM
They're all working full time. Obviously they aren't earning enough if they're homeless. But this was their choice. If they are hungry and homeless, they should obviously leave school, save up, find roommates, and return to college when they are solvent. This is how responsible people did it in the old days. They went to college when and if they could afford it.
Kelly Gilfether December 03, 2013 at 09:10 AM
I admire the students who worked so hard to find a solution to a hush, hush subject like homelessness. We are willing to give to other countries but not to the working poor in our own back yard. I also truly admire these homeless and hungry college students who are going to school and working but not able to have the basic needs, but they don't give up! It's the young adults in this story who didn't give up, all of who are students, that will be the leaders of tomorrow and make America a better place to live!
Dawn Grimm Campbell December 18, 2013 at 04:40 AM
I personally admire the motivation of these young adults who are doing what it takes to get an education and make their life easier in the future. Quitting because they ran into opticals seems to be the mentality of kids today. Life is not easy even with an education, so learning this lesson early on will provide a successful, hard working citizen to society. I wish them well and hope that students who read this will reach out and help rather than comment that they should quit school. Too bad they don't have parents who spend their life savings to send the kids to school to party and have fun! (Sarcasm)
Jody December 19, 2013 at 10:03 AM
No one commented that they should quit school. I commented that they should use their common sense and work to get in a position so that they can attend school without being homeless. They have the right idea about the importance of getting an education, but something is lacking if they are willing to be homeless to do so. Perhaps they are a product of the current culture of having things "right now!" Patience, prudence, and planning are just as important as perseverance.


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