Dane Pascoe didn’t sleep much the first night he spent in his car.
Parked at a Subway restaurant near Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the 21-year-old college junior ate his dinner — a Subway sandwich — alone as the mid-December chill crept into his 1994 Toyota Corolla.
“I just sat in my car all night trying to figure out what to do,” Pascoe, now 29, said.
It was Christmas break after the fall 2009 semester at Liberty. The dorms, where Pascoe both lived and supervised as a resident assistant, were off-limits while school was not in session, and Pascoe’s family home in Norfolk was empty and on the market.
With nowhere to go, Pascoe defaulted to sleeping in his car — and being homeless.
Now, eight years later, Pascoe is fueled by his experience with homelessness.
Pascoe is a second-year doctoral student in William & Mary’s higher education program, and focuses on low-socioeconomic status students. Pascoe plans to become an academic advisor to support students during college — in both their personal and academic lives.
“The experience completely changed my perspective on everything,” Pascoe said. “I operate out of a social justice lens now, and I’m looking to just really advocate for those on the margin.”
“It’s not because I’m a Christian, or my theological beliefs, but because of the month-long stay in my car over Christmas break.”
Pascoe is not alone in his experiences.
According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), more than 59,000 students reported they were homeless while applying for federal financial aid for the 2015-2016 school year.
But that number only includes students who filled out the FAFSA — meaning there could be far more homeless students in the United States.
At 21, Pascoe defied the stereotype of “homeless,” and had never faced homelessness or its hardship until his winter break in 2009.
Pascoe grew up in a Navy family with a twin brother and two other younger siblings. The family lived in several states while his father was deployed from six to nine months at a time, finally settling in Norfolk when his father retired.
“We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich,” Pascoe said.
After his parents separated and all his siblings were legal adults, Pascoe’s mother decided to sell their family home in Norfolk when Pascoe reached his junior year. With several serious potential buyers, Pascoe had to find alternative housing.
For the 21-year-old, there weren’t many viable options. And, feeling ashamed about his situation, asking for help was out of the question.
“I was only 21 and my family had seen me as the successful one,” he said. “I didn’t want them to know I was sleeping in my car.”
Pascoe briefly visited family members in Norfolk before returning to Lynchburg shortly after Christmas. After returning, Pascoe parked at Subway again.
“I didn’t get to shower the whole time,” Pascoe said. “Food was super inconsistent. It was the first time I realized having food and having it consistently was a huge blessing… I remember a lot of times being so hungry and eating weird things, like peppermints from the mall.”
‘A lot of lucky experiences’
Although Pascoe’s time living in his car was brief, he says he avoided homelessness again only through “a lot of lucky experiences.”
Pascoe lived in the Subway parking lot a second time during spring break in 2010, and was almost homeless again that summer before finding a job at a summer camp in Georgia.
“The main concern was having housing and food,” he said. “That job gave me that.”
During his senior year, Pascoe faced the possibility of homelessness a fourth time after losing his position as an RA, which had allowed him to live in the dorms without paying housing costs.
The residence hall director had discovered Pascoe trying to stay in the dorms through winter break the previous school year, and believed he didn’t “fit the bill.”
“The director also made it clear I didn’t fit the stereotypical person for an RA at Liberty. They wanted a hyper-spiritual, rules-compliant student and after a pretty traumatic year, I didn’t really fit that,” Pascoe said of Liberty University, which is the largest Christian university in the world.
With another stroke of luck, Pascoe secured a house with several friends for his final year in college, although housing was notoriously difficult to secure with so many students in the area, he said.
“A lot of the time, people believe if you just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and work hard, you can get yourself out of homelessness,” Pascoe said. “But it was really a lot of lucky experiences for me.”
Pascoe is now a full-time doctoral student at William & Mary and lives in Williamsburg with his wife, Lauren, and two children, Clark and Wilson.
Pascoe believes limited resources and negative perceptions of homelessness both at and outside Liberty University contributed to the shame he felt in 2009.
“I didn’t reach out at the time because of the prevailing narrative of ‘If you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy or not creative enough to pull yourself up by your bootstraps,'” he said. “I was very private about it.”
After a decade spent earning his bachelor’s degree at Liberty, master’s at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and doctorate at William & Mary, Pascoe has turned his attention to the students behind him.
“Living in my car was life-changing,” he said. “Obviously I hated the experience, but it woke me up to the idea that not everyone had what I had.”
With his own experiences in mind, Pascoe is determined to change the student experience.
“It’s a transformative time during college, and students need that institutional support to have that change and do it safely,” he said. “It’s not only helping them with classes, but it’s also saying ‘Hey, where are you going for Christmas break?’”