At Long Beach City College, a nearly 100-year-old community college south of Los Angeles, at least eight students have been given permission to sleep in their cars in a campus parking facility, as part of an official campus program to help college students who cannot afford a place to live.
The college parking garage, which has a security guard, wifi, and bathrooms nearby, is seen as a safer alternative to students sleeping in their cars on the street, where fears of being robbed or written up by the police make it even more difficult for them to succeed at school. At least 98 students enrolled at the school are known to be experiencing homelessness this semester, according to the college’s basic needs program manager, with at least 25 of them living in their cars.
Housing insecurity is a problem on college campuses across the US, but it’s particularly problematic in California, a state marked by extreme inequality and a staggering housing crisis.
The rising cost of rent is a struggle for students in every part of California’s educational system, including at public universities with multibillion-dollar endowments: in a 2017 survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, about 10% of students, including 20% of post-doctoral students, said they had experienced homelessness.
But the crisis hits hardest at California’s community colleges, which enroll nearly 2 million students each year, making them the largest system of higher education in the country. Community colleges offer themselves as the pathway to higher-paying, more stable careers, particularly for students who come from families without many financial resources. But the latest statewide survey, published in 2019, found that 19% of California community college students had experienced homelessness in the past year, and 60% had experienced some kind of housing insecurity. Black students, indigenous students, and LGBTQ students, especially transgender students, were at higher risk of housing insecurity than their peers.
When Majeedah Wesley was LBCC’s student body vice-president in 2014, she was living in a youth homeless shelter in Hollywood, about two hours away from campus by public transit.
Many of the people she told about her living situation were astonished. “You’re homeless? A really high-functioning college student?” Wesley recalled.
It was clear, she said, that many people believed homelessness “was something that only people who didn’t have potential would experience.”
Wesley knew that was not true: especially in California, simple “bad luck, bad timing”, could leave students unable to pay for a room. When family members she had been staying with in the Los Angeles area told her she could no longer live with them, she had “a little bit of money in the bank, not enough to get an apartment”, she said. If she went home to the Bay Area, where she did have a place to stay, she would not be able to go to class, and she would fail her courses.
Moving into a youth shelter allowed her to finish the semester. Wesley, who had been voted “most likely to be a millionaire” by her high school classmates, worked hard to appear as if nothing had changed.
But once she experienced homelessness herself, she “started to see the signs” in other students. “A big backpack was a sign. It tells me that somebody is carrying more than what they need for the day,” Wesley said. “Somebody really tired all the time was another thing. People would come into the student lounge and they would go to sleep and it wasn’t an ‘I’ve been in classes all day today,’ type of tired. They’d be sleeping for hours.”
Leeann, 21, an LBCC student, said that some of her friends have only told her after the fact that they had been dealing with homelessness. “Students struggle with it, just asking for help,” she said. That’s especially true of people who “grew up in families where you don’t talk about your feelings, you don’t talk about what’s wrong.” Many people have the attitude, “I have to fix it myself,” she said. (The Guardian is identifying current college students who have experienced homelessness only by their first names.)
In Leeann’s family, children were expected to start paying their own way after they turned 18, she said. For her first two years at LBCC, she was able to work full-time while going to school and afford a monthly $800 in rent. Then she got accepted to LBCC’s nursing program. Her medical coursework was more challenging, and she went from getting all As to barely passing. In order to have more time for schoolwork, she had to work less, and she moved in with friends to save on rent. When her first roommate situation didn’t work out, she started sleeping on other friends’ couches. Dropping out of her program temporarily was not an option: she saw a nursing degree as her way out of the cycle of financial instability and stress she had experienced as a child.
Leeann said her friends and their families were generous, some allowing her to stay with them for weeks at a time. But living without her own space was “hard”, particularly while enrolled in a challenging academic program. “It was already a family with a crammed house,” she said. “There wasn’t really a quiet area to do my work.
“I would always see myself as a burden for being up late at night with the lamp on.
“Homelessness has so many different faces to it,” Leeann said. “Someone sitting next to you, just because they look clean, and all that, doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing it.”
‘A paycheck away from homelessness’
For years, in part because of the stigma, homelessness among college students was “a hidden crisis”, said Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor at California State University Long Beach and a leading researcher on the issue. As late as 2017, Crutchfield said, she would interview students who had no place to live, and they would tell her, “I thought I was the only one.”
A 2020 survey of 195,000 college students across the US still enrolled during the pandemic found that 14% had experienced homelessness in the past year, though only about 3% self-identified as homeless. Most described what they had been through as “couch-surfing” or staying with friends.
People are often reluctant to apply the label “homeless” to themselves, Crutchfield said.
“I still hear students say, ‘I’m living in my car, but I’m not homeless, because my car is my home.’”
Over the past decade, academic research documenting the extent of hunger and homelessness among college students has driven a transformation in how schools approach the problem, as researchers have highlighted how “hunger and homelessness routinely undermine students’ very ability to learn”.
Today, virtually every public college in California has some kind of food pantry for students, according to Debbie Raucher, the director of education at John Burton Advocates for Youth, a California non-profit. Last year, she said, the California legislature approved $30m to fund “basic needs” programs at all community colleges, as well as a one-time grant of $100m to address food and housing insecurity.
On a recent Wednesday at LBCC’s “Viking Vault”, Patricia, 35, was hauling boxes of fruit donated by a local grocery store and welcoming the students who had dropped by to pick up basic groceries, diapers or free children’s clothing. Students scan a QR code at the door, and then can take as much as they need. The goal is to create an atmosphere that is friendly and without stigma, like a Trader Joe’s or a Jamba Juice, said Justin Mendez, the school’s basic needs coordinator.
Patricia has a 12-year-old daughter, and has relied on the school’s basic needs program herself. Before Long Beach, she said, she had attended at least four other colleges across the Los Angeles area, but she always struggled, and never finished a degree. “I didn’t feel supported,” she said.
In late 2020, after years of unstable housing, she and her daughter became “homeless homeless”, living in a car, then in a friend’s RV, which did not have electricity or running water. Long Beach’s expanding basic needs program reached out to her in ways previous colleges had not: not just with free groceries, but with mental health support, resources to help her as she recovered from surgery, a transitional apartment for her and her daughter.
Today, Patricia is part of a federal work study program, and is months away from completing an associate’s degree in drug and alcohol counseling, which she plans to follow with a master’s in social work.
Many people have an “outdated” image of struggling college students as people barely out of their teens who “have to eat Top Ramen sometimes”, Raucher said. A more accurate image is someone like Patricia: “A single mom with two small children who’s trying to go to school to better her economic circumstances while managing childcare and transportation and employment and parenting.”
Christine, 49, an LBCC business administration major, said the “cutthroat” rental market in California had left her unable to find a new apartment after her landlord sold her building. Rents in her Long Beach neighborhood were already soaring as new luxury buildings rose by the beach: she said her old apartment, which cost her $1,200, now rents for more than $2,000 a month. With bad credit and a recent job loss, Christine said, she could not get approved for a new apartment anywhere. She and her young daughter ended up moving into a motel.
“It’s almost like our economy has pushed people out of their homes,” she said. “I remember years ago reading an article that said, ‘Most families are a paycheck away from homelessness,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Oh that seems extreme.’ And then you find yourself in that position.”
While college students experience homelessness for many different reasons, “it is still predominantly an economic challenge,” said Eric Hubbard, a development director at Jovenes, a non-profit whose program for getting students into housing has become a model across the state. “Housing is just so expensive.”
Advocates said the pandemic has brought even more of the problem out into the open.
“Students could live in their cars, and they could go to the gym and different restaurants and wash up and act like it was a normal day,” said Colette Redden, a program coordinator at Jovenes. But when the pandemic hit and businesses shut down, “They didn’t have a place to go.”
Even before the pandemic, California had already made big strides in changing the kind of resources they offer to help keep students from dropping out of school.
“This movement – addressing student basic needs in terms of higher education – has gone at light speed in many ways,” Crutchfield said.
“Most of the credit goes to our students,” Crutchfield said. “They have held our feet to the fire and done a lot of activism.”
But Crutchfield and others say that the cultural belief that college students are inherently worthy of help has also made a difference in the speed of the response, a marked contrast to efforts to help people dealing with other kinds of homelessness.
‘Safe for now’
LBCC’s announcement last November that it would allow students to sleep in the parking lot sparked a wave of media attention, including news vans outside the parking garage, and colleges across the country reached out for more information about how they might replicate the program. In Long Beach, the local community response was overwhelmingly supportive, Mendez said. Community members asked if they could bring sandwiches, and one person donated $100 gift cards to the students.
One student who has been sleeping in the parking garage since November still managed to make the dean’s list, Mendez said. Other students are maintaining 4.0 averages while living in an RV.
For some of the students sleeping in the safe parking program, the level of public attention has been distressing, Mendez said, and none of them were interested in talking to journalists.
But several LBCC students who previously lived in their cars said they thought allowing students to sleep in the campus parking lot was a positive step. Christine, the business administration student, slept in her car for parts of 2019 and 2020, and said that before she experienced it herself, she had thought living in a car would be “like camping”.
What she hadn’t anticipated, she said, was the amount of work and anxiety that came with trying to find a place to park every night: how to locate a parking spot that was safe, but not in a neighborhood where someone would call the police. How difficult it was to find anywhere to park if she had to work until 10pm, as she often did with gig work. Where to use the bathroom, or brush her teeth, and worrying about what would happen to her teeth if she didn’t brush them enough.
“I know some people will probably look at [the safe parking program] and say, ‘Why don’t you try to find these student homes?’ But it’s not that easy,” she said. It was helpful for students like her, she said, “just to have that stepping stone: ‘You’re safe for now.’”
Two of the students approved for the safe parking program have since moved into transitional housing, Mendez said. More than 30 LBCC students have found transitional housing through a partnership with Jovenes.
Connecting students with transitional housing costs roughly $10,000 for each student per year, Hubbard said. While not cheap, that investment made financial sense, he said: giving students financial aid to go to college, but then letting them struggle and fail out of class because they were sleeping in their cars, was not productive, he said.
Jovenes’s program, now being replicated across the state, does not have enough funding to help every LBCC student who has no place to live, or even the majority of them.
Last semester, 1,200 LBCC students requested housing support from the school because of struggles to pay rent or keep up with bills, and 225 students were identified as “literally homeless”, Mendez said. So far this semester, the school has received 500 requests for housing support.
Raucher, the education budget expert, said even the limited amount of housing resources available to students at LBCC “unfortunately is not the norm”. In 2019 the state legislature approved $19m for a first-of-its-kind program to support college students dealing with homelessness in every part of the state’s education system. Fourteen of the state’s community colleges, including LBCC, got grants from this program, Raucher said, but “the other 102 colleges out there don’t have access,” she said.
California’s community colleges also got a disproportionately small slice of the new homelessness prevention funding, she said: the state legislature gave them slightly less than the $10m given to the state college and university systems, even though community colleges serve more than three times as many students, and have higher documented rates of student homelessness.
LBCC students who have been able to get transitional housing said it has been transformative. Leeann, the nursing student, was one of them. Last July, after three months of couch-surfing and academic struggle, Jovenes helped her move into a shared apartment not far from campus with three other students who had all been surviving without a stable place to live.
The apartment came with basic furniture: a couch, table, beds and desks. For Leeann, that was a big deal. “When I still lived with my family, it was a really crammed home. I shared a room with four other people,” she said. “I never had my own desk. There was never room for one.”
The effect on her classwork has been dramatic, Leeann said. She said she sees Jovenes as serving in a kind of parental role, providing for her what many of her classmates get from their families: the financial support to focus full-time on school.