How I was homeless at Columbia

‘I had all my winter clothes in Far Rockaway but I had nowhere to bring them’

Columbia University famously boasts a lot of spots in top ten lists. One of these is its position of second most expensive college in the US, according to the Business Insider in 2015.

With the promise of an Ivy League degree, many students will go through unimaginable obstacles just to stay at the school.

Anna Demidova is one of these students. She tackled midterms while homeless, studying for two of the most difficult majors at Columbia.

She now dedicates her time to her photography company and aspires to work as a software engineer. We spoke with her about her challenges with financial insecurity during her first year.

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Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Anna Demidova. I’m 28 years old. I’m studying Financial Economics and Computer Science and I’m going to be a senior this year. My hometown is very complicated but I would say New York because this is where I feel most at home.

You were homeless during your first year at Columbia. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like?

It was a temporary situation in which I found myself due to different sets of circumstances that were happening before Columbia. I moved out [of New York] to save up for Columbia by doing a summer job in Massachusetts. Once I came back to New York, which was two days before classes started because I wanted to stay as long as possible to work, I wasn’t able to find a place to stay. I was in touch with University Housing about my options and everything that they were offering was way out of my budget. Having lived in New York for three years up to that point, I knew what the rent would be like if I were to search in certain neighborhoods but I wasn’t able to find it. What I ended up doing was crash at my friend’s place on the floor and slept in a sleeping bag for a few weeks.

It wasn’t that things got bad, but it was just weird overstaying there. I felt like I was supposed to go and be on my own but I really had no place to go. In October and November, I would be at her place maybe once or twice a week. For a lot of the week I would stay at Barnard in the Diana Center. I would also shower at the gym and get my food elsewhere. I remember it got cold and I had all my winter clothes in Far Rockaway but I had nowhere to bring them. I went to food pantries and crashed a lot of Columbia events with food. It was a lot survival tactics.

I never would really say that I was homeless. It was more like “Oh, I’m going to stay there because it’s better for me to be there.” I was just trying to find my way of solving the issue and my way of solving it was staying on campus.

I didn’t really know anyone since it was my first semester. It was in my English class where I met some friends for life but at that point it was October and when you first meet someone it’s not something you tell them. I was also working a lot, at that time, so I didn’t really have time to be social. My life was basically a race going from place to place.

Looking back, it didn’t really bother me that much because it was just a strategy of solving things. I didn’t really have time to get upset or depressed about it. I just had to keep going. The fact that homelessness didn’t bother me so much could be due to the fact that I come from a dysfunctional family and things were never rosy for me.

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What was the hardest point or lowest moment for you during that time?

I think that my hardest point wasn’t when I was homeless. It was during my spring semester when I had found a place that was super cheap. I think I was paying $550 or something. I wasn’t able to work as much and I basically ran out of my savings. Everything that I had saved from the summer before just slowly ran out. I have a screenshot of my bank account and there was only thirty bucks in my checking account and then they starting charging me over draft fees. That was pretty bad.

My lowest point was related to the fact that I may not have been able to come back to Columbia for my second year. Essentially I wasn’t able to pay my tuition and I wasn’t able to register for classes in the fall semester. I felt like I had worked so hard and there was no visible possibility for me at that point to come back. Things did change in June because I received a scholarship but there was a moment in March or April where I was very confused about what to do and how to go about things.

What is your advice to other students who become homeless?

First of all, I think it’s a very stigmatized issue. I know a lot of people who struggle with food insecurity and it’s something they don’t want to talk about. Though talking about it could be beneficial and therapeutic. They can always reach out to me and we can brainstorm somethings that they can do.

I did consider going to a shelter at some point but the only shelter I knew of was on the Eastside and so commuting would have been hard and Barnard was closer. I suggest that they check out Jeanne D’Arc Residence and Jan Hus which may not have a direct shelter but they can give a good referral and are a good resource in general.

They really just have to persevere. They have to stay focused on what they’re trying to achieve. I knew that I was essentially running away from a lot of my service jobs. I did not want to be a waitress. I mean, I really loved it. I loved the restaurant industry but it was my biggest fear to come back and do that again just to survive. Columbia was my way of getting out of it. I was very motivated and that was one thing that really kept me going.

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The following year, you became one of the RA’s for GS students. What has that been like for you?

I think it was what made my Columbia experience. I have a lot of issues with Columbia as an institution. Being a GS RA gave me so much energy and so much positivity in my life. I really think it helped me to experience Columbia in a different way—in a social way. I’m still amazed by how great the people are who come here and how much I’ve learned from them.

Being an RA gave me the chance to really get to know the GS community and learn how diverse and different we are. I think of what a great mission GS has. This school is a place of social mobility. It’s a place that gives people the opportunity to make their life better. I’m a huge fan of what GS can do for someone.

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You’re passionate about photography. When did you start and what first got you interested in it?

I’ve always liked fashion magazines and I was convinced when I was little that I’d be working in media at some point. I don’t know if my mom still has them but I used to have boxes and boxes of magazines that I would collect and preserve them or make collages.

I did not get my camera until I got to New York. In 2011, this friend of mine asked me if I could wish for two things for my birthday what would they be and I said a keyboard and a camera. The camera was very easy to teach myself. I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of books so I’m completely self-taught. The reason I started doing it was partially financial. I started taking pictures of my friends who were musicians and artists. I’d do their headshots or pictures of their concerts. Then I started doing family photography and now I’m doing couple’s photography. It’s a job but it’s a job that I’m lucky to have because it’s something that I like. It started out as a hobby so I’m lucky to get paid to do something that I’d be doing anyway.

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March 13 Photography is your company. Where would you like to see it in five years?

I would love to organize an event photography company. I just have so much work and I can’t do it on my own. I’d love to coordinate with other people who are available that do it but that would just be for the business purpose.

I really enjoy photographing people who are in love and also diversifying the message. I’d like to have a representative portfolio of what love looks like nowadays across the world.

What are your goals for after graduation?

I hope to work in technology. That’s what I’ve been working hard on this summer. I’m not sure which field yet but probably software engineering and I may even move to San Francisco.

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