Three years ago, Kyshawna Johnson, 23, had a lot more than homework on her mind as she pursued an associate’s degree at Citrus College in Glendora, California. She also worried constantly about where to park overnight, since she was living in her car.
“That journey was a little traumatic for me,” says Johnson, who lived in her 2014 Chrysler 200 from September 2016 until the following March. “It affected my grades a lot. It affected my mental health. It affected my emotional stability. I was having different doubts about my future.”
Johnson’s plight is more common than many may realize.
A survey of nearly 86,000 students taken last fall by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that homelessness affected 18% of respondents attending two-year colleges, and 14% of those attending four-year institutions. The number who said they had experienced housing insecurity, such as difficulty paying rent, was much higher, at 60%, among those attending two-year schools, and at 48% for those enrolled in four-year institutions.
“These are people who might not be on the street at this point but they do not have a fixed and regular place to sleep, and that creates stress that interferes with education,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Hope Center, which focuses on research, activism and student support to improve access to higher education. “If they are temporarily staying with a relative or couch surfing with a friend, that is also homelessness.”
A combination of factors, including rising tuition, financial aid packages that fail to keep up with the costs of food, gas and child care, and an overall lack of affordable housing have fueled the homelessness crisis among college students.
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“The conditions that create these problems do tend to be worse now than 10 to 15 years ago,’’ says Goldrick-Rab, who added that college students can’t necessarily tap the safety nets available to younger children or adults who are not in school.
Public housing authorities, for instance, can prioritize who they rent to when spaces are short, Goldrick-Rab says, and full-time college students are often pushed to the bottom.
Now a growing number of community organizations, colleges and lawmakers are trying to address the homelessness that belies the idyllic image many have of students bonding with roommates in campus dorms and worrying about little more than what fraternity or sorority to pledge.
“Everybody thinks what we saw on ‘Felicity’ or ‘A Different World’ is still what college is like,” says Goldrick-Rab, who noted that only 13 out of 100 American undergraduates live in student housing. People “also believe that every student has a parent who is paying for them. That is vanishingly rare right now. Most parents are barely making ends meet on their own.’’
Parking lots, subsidies fill breach
The California Assembly has passed a bill that would require every community college in the state to provide a safe parking lot where homeless students can sleep in their cars overnight. Massachusetts, meanwhile, launched a pilot project this year that enables students at four community colleges to live in campus housing at nearby four-year universities.
Tacoma Community College in Washington has partnered with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide 150 vouchers to help pay the rent for students in need.
And Jovenes, a program based in southeast Los Angeles County, helps out homeless students by paying their rent and providing a few apartments that they can share.
“There is financial aid and scholarships that make college very affordable itself,” says Eric Hubbard, Jovenes’ director of development. “But if we’re not focusing on all that students are dealing with to stay housed and stay fed, then we’re not setting them up to succeed.”
Jovenes focuses on students attending three local community colleges, East L.A., Rio Hondo and Cerritos. The organization’s “Rapid Rehousing” initiative helps pay the rent for students with the goal that within a year, they will have the income or savings to cover the payments themselves.
The organization has also begun leasing some nearby apartments that can house one to four students and is looking for local homeowners who are willing to provide a spare room to students for up to six months while they search for longer-term housing.
In the last three years, the organization has helped 55 students at the community colleges it focuses on to find housing, Hubbard says, and 79% of those it’s helped with rent payments remained enrolled in college, outpacing the overall statewide community college retention rate of 70%. “The students are able to stay housed, and that’s having a big impact on their ability to stay in school and ultimately graduate,” he says.
Problem has gotten worse
Along with higher costs and shortages of housing, another factor keeping students from finding stable shelter is that they may also be reluctant to share their struggles and seek help.
Matthew Bodo, 21, was homeless for nearly two years while attending Foothill College in the Northern California community of Los Altos Hills. He worked 14 hours a day as a valet for Tesla, parking employees’ cars, but couldn’t meet the requirement by many landlords that his monthly income total three times the monthly rent.
“I was completely and totally embarrassed by it at first,” Bodo says. “At the time, I strongly disagreed with calling myself homeless because I thought a car could be considered a home, but now I see it as one and the same.”
Finally, a friend asked Bodo if he was homeless after she noticed that his car was filled with blankets, books and other personal belongings. She referred him to a campus program that became a lifeline, helping Bodo get financial aid and other support.
Bodo, who became vice president of the student senate and is now living rent-free in the home of a professor, has since become an activist around the issue of homelessness. He is helping to convene a summit on the issue at Foothill on June 14.
“There’s such a stigma against homelessness and the word ‘homeless,”’ says Bodo, who is headed to UCLA in the fall where he will study linguistics and psychology and receive $25,000 in aid that covers housing as well as meals and tuition. “People think of somebody on the side of the road talking to themselves rather than a student just trying to better themselves and get an education.”
Searching for a safe place to sleep
In California, $15 million in ongoing funds has been proposed in the state budget to help meet basic student needs, including food and housing insecurity, for those attending the schools that are part of the University of California system. One time funds of $15 million have also been proposed for the Cal State university system which has 23 campuses. Community colleges, however, would not be included in that funding.
Now, a proposal that would open community college parking lots to students living in their cars is headed to the state Senate after passing the Assembly last month
“I’ve been upfront from day one that this is a short-term, band-aid solution to the crisis we have,” says Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, the bill’s sponsor.
Still, of the nearly 399,000 community college students in the state who experienced some period of homelessness in the previous year, 80,000, or 20%, of them slept in their cars, Berman says.
“The reality is it’s going to take billions of dollars and many years before we develop the housing necessary to house everybody in California,” he says. “I can’t look these students in the face and say I refuse to consider a short-term solution because I was working on the long-term solution that will help you in five years.”
At least one California school has already rolled out such a program. West Valley College in Saratoga joined this year with an organization of local houses of worship to begin a “Safe park’’ initiative.
A different lot is available every month for homeless students, as well as other members of the community who are sleeping in their cars. Volunteers are on hand to sign people in and help if an emergency arises. When West Valley’s lot is the one in use, the school also serves meals every Friday night.
“Given the cost of rentals … we’re seeing an uptick in the needs of students we are serving that exceeds what their Pell grants and jobs can pay for, says Bradley Davis, West Valley College’s president, who adds that roughly 300 homeless students attend his school. “We’re going to do this every month, every year, that there’s a need.’’
Massachusetts pairs schools for housing
Massachusetts is piloting a more expansive program to take on student homelessness. Students at four community colleges are able to get campus housing at the nearby four-year institutions of Bridgewater State, Framingham State, Worcester State and UMass Lowell.
Twenty students just completed their first semester in the initiative, which also covers their meals and allows them to stay in student housing during school breaks. Students are also teamed with nonprofit service providers who can assist with additional needs, such as laptops and financial literacy.
Jaime Waldron, 20, who will be a junior at UMass Lowell this coming school year, is among those being helped by the Massachusetts program.
She had bounced between relatives after her mother died when she was 15, but she was able to live in a campus dorm once she started college. When summer loomed, however, she had to figure out where she would go.
“It actually never hit me until the end of my freshman year that I needed somewhere to live,’’ says Waldron. “I was studying for finals and freaking out.”
An associate dean at the university ultimately helped Waldron secure a place to stay. And this year, summer housing is not a question mark because of the state’s housing pilot. Unlike last year, “I never had to worry about where I was going to live,” she says. “I was actually able to focus on school.’’
Hunger, homelessness can overlap
Hunger and homelessness often, but not always, overlap. Among respondents to the Hope survey, 39% of those attending two-year colleges, and 30% of those enrolled at four-year schools experienced both food and housing insecurity in the past year.
Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington, has several spots on campus where students can get a meal or pick up groceries. It also has showers that students can use. And it is working with a program started by a local couple who rent houses, then sublet them to the homeless, to designate two houses specifically for college students by the fall.
“This week alone, we have three young men who lost their housing, and so now there are three more that have nowhere to land,” says Patricia Thomas, program manager for Olympic College’s Students in Need Group. “We have some great programs in our community, but nothing that can rescue constantly, and everyone.”
Johnson, of Citrus College, lived with her grandmother when she was a teenager, but when her grandmother no longer received funds from the foster care system for keeping her, Johnson was told she had to leave. She then briefly lived with an aunt and uncle but had to move out when their landlord said she couldn’t stay.
Her $10-an-hour wages working three days a week weren’t enough to cover rent, and so Johnson ended up living in her car. She initially parked near a Starbucks so she could tap into the Wi-Fi and do her homework. But inevitably the police would arrive to clear out the lot and chase her away.
“Being a young lady, I didn’t know where I could trust my car to be,” she says, adding that strangers would sometimes knock on her window as she tried to find well-lit spots behind her school, near restaurants or in residential neighborhoods.
Once her car was broken into and her birth certificate, social security card and other documents were stolen. And she had to ask friends and co-workers if she could take a shower at their homes before she found a youth drop-in center where she could bathe and wash her clothes.
“I thought it was embarrassing because I didn’t know the reaction I would get,’ she says. But finally, “I decided to put my pride aside because I saw how deep of a hole I was in.”
A resource center she visited directed Johnson to Jovenes. One of the organization’s donors is covering the rent for an apartment where Johnson now lives.
“When I got into housing March 3, 2017, my life took a turn for the better,” she says. “I found my drive again. I saw that I was resilient, that I was still a go-getter. I didn’t let homelessness stop me. … I could have walked away from school.”
Now instead of walking away, she’s moving forward. She graduates from Citrus in June and has gotten a full scholarship to attend Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Housing is included,” she says. “They’re taking care of my dorm.’’
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones