Barely scraping by: How the Bay Area housing crisis is making it near impossible for students to stay in community college

Friday, May 10, 2019

By day, Matthew Bodo worked 12-plus hour days as a valet for Tesla in Palo Alto and studied psychology and communications at Foothill College, long fascinated by neurology, human behavior and media. By night, he slept in a shuttle at the high-end electric car company.

Without a stable home of his own, he became adept at finding places to sleep. If a friend's couch or floor wasn't available, there was the small, carpeted meditation room on campus. There was his car, a 2000 red two-door Mustang with windows that weren't fully sealed and a malfunctioning heater. Sometimes he could park overnight undetected at Foothill. Other times he would be asked to leave, heading into the night to find somewhere out of sight to park, on a quiet street or behind a supermarket.

Bodo, 21, who grew up in Los Altos, felt isolated and ashamed about his living situation. But he was far from alone. A 2018 survey found that 11 percent of Foothill students who responded to the survey are homeless and 41 percent are housing insecure. (About 800 of the community college's 15,000 students took the survey.) Statewide, nearly one in five community college students are either homeless or do not have a stable place to live, according to a recent survey conducted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. More than half of the 40,000 students from 57 community colleges who took the survey said they worry about running out of food before they have the money to buy more. The report found the highest rates of homelessness and housing and food insecurity among students in Northern California.

Many of these students, like Bodo, are pursuing education to break a cycle of difficult life circumstances — homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction, family conflict — but face barrier after barrier due to the high cost of living, especially in the Bay Area.

These students have learned resiliency through hardship and are not accustomed to asking for help or talking about an experience — being without a home — that is often relegated to the shadows. But many have found their voices through advocacy and are pushing their community colleges and elected officials to address an emerging crisis: the untenability of being a full-time student in one of the country's most expensive real estate markets.

"You can have education and it's (still) hard to overcome these circumstances," said Jimii Lewis, a 26-year-old Foothill student who has experienced homelessness. "Trying to get an education and overcome these circumstances is near impossible."

Matthew Bodo: 'The help is there'

When Bodo was a teenager, he attended Mountain View High School. After he went to rehab in Texas, he returned to Los Altos to live with his father. They fought often, and bitterly, sometimes ending in Bodo getting kicked out of the house for short stints. He was 19 years old the last time he says he was asked to leave, for good.

Bodo piled his belongings into his car, where he slept until a friend let him sleep on his bedroom floor. He was working long days at Tesla three days a week and in class from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. two days a week. What little free time he had was spent studying or doing homework. He had a hard time navigating the academic structure of school, having started during the middle of the school year. He didn't know where to turn for help.

"I was super embarrassed," he said. "When you hear homeless, you think (of a) hobo. I'm sure that brings slightly different things to people's minds but that's never a positive connotation. I was reluctant to talk about it because I didn't want to be judged for it."

Then, someone he met at the campus food pantry, which Foothill opened in 2013, encouraged him to get involved in student government. A friend connected him to Foothill's Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), a state-funded program that supports financially needy and educationally disadvantaged students, in which advisers walked him through financial aid and provided academic tutoring.

Knowing — or not knowing — whether you can afford a permanent home or your next meal can make or break a student's success at school, the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and Hope Center's #RealCollege survey found. Students who had experienced housing and food insecurities had grades at C or below at higher rates than those who did not. Basic needs insecurity is also linked with poor physical health, depression and higher perceived stress, the report states.

"California's community colleges are the primary driver of upward social and economic mobility for millions of residents," California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a press release for the survey. "This new report should serve as a call to action for fixing the state's outdated financial aid system and expanding need-based assistance for community college students. No student should face hunger or homelessness. California must do better."

While California community college tuition is less expensive than state colleges or private institutions, the report estimated that a community college student living independently must pay more than $20,000 annually to cover housing, transportation, textbooks and personal expenses. The report advocates for the passage of Senate Bill 291, which would create a California Community College Student Financial Aid program that would provide aid based on the total cost of attendance, including housing, transportation and textbooks.

Now an elected senator on the Associated Students of Foothill College Boards of Government, Bodo is using his platform to raise the visibility of student homelessness and housing insecurity.

Knowing there were other struggling students at Foothill who, like him, were reluctant to seek help, Bodo and other student leaders started trying to find them to connect them to resources. They posted flyers throughout campus and got the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services program to send a mass text to students the office works with. They started hearing from students in response and connected them with the help Bodo once needed but didn't know how to access — Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, campus psychological services, local food banks and the campus food pantry, a mobile shower and laundry service in Mountain View, and information about the process to apply for food stamps and low-income housing.

There are community college students who "aren't going to their support services and financial aid because either they're too embarrassed or they think, 'I shouldn't bother because I should figure this out myself. I should be able to solve this,'" Bodo said. "The more stigmatized it is and the more negative people see it, the less students are going to reach out for help, and that's bad. The help is there and it really, really, really is helpful."

Connecting housing-insecure and homeless students with support remains Foothill student government's lowest hanging fruit. They're also working toward two longer-term goals: to find a way to take advantage of potential available housing in the area around Foothill, such as empty rooms in houses owned by older, retired people with no children, and to advocate for the development of more affordable housing more broadly, including the creation of more accessory dwelling units. Other student groups have also taken up the cause, including the Real Estate Research Club, which created a website where local community college students can post and search for available rooms for rent.

Bodo and other students traveled to Sacramento last month to support the passage of state Assembly Bill 302, which would require community colleges with parking facilities to allow overnight parking by homeless students. The bill passed by a 10-0 vote out of the Assembly Higher Education Committee and is next scheduled to go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

It's admittedly a "Band-Aid solution," said Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, who authored the bill, but an effective one while the state works toward the more complicated goal of building more housing. Berman proposed the legislation after repeated student testimonials in hearings on the Master Plan for Higher Education over the last two years that housing and food insecurity are "the two biggest issues that students were struggling with in California public colleges in the 21st century," he told the Weekly.

"I want to overemphasize: This is not meant to be a long-term solution, but the crisis exists today and we can't pretend like it doesn't. As long as students are sleeping in their cars and being forced into the shadows in dark alleyways or industrial parks where they hope that the police won't bother them ... that is forcing them into areas that are even more dangerous for them," Berman said.

"Let's be honest with ourselves about the fact that we have a housing crisis, we have a homelessness crisis and it's impacting everybody, including our students," he said.

Bodo said the bill would provide relief to students who are living out of their cars.

"People generally aren't very friendly in this area to somebody that is sleeping in their car," he said. "I think it would also help us visualize the problem."

Sean Bogle, Foothill's dean of student affairs and activities, said he'd like the community college to work toward opening its parking lots to needy students overnight. There's already one local example of that: West Valley College in Saratoga, which partnered with the city of Saratoga and the Saratoga Ministerial Association to offer a SafePark Overnight Parking program for students and community members.

The extent to which community colleges are scrambling to respond to student housing instability reflects how acute the problem is. Some schools have allowed students to sleep on cots in campus gyms overnight, Bogle said, while he's working to get financial aid to offer $100 Airbnb gift cards for students who need one night of emergency housing. Since 2016, all California community colleges have been required by law to allow homeless students who are enrolled in coursework, have paid tuition fees, and are in good standing to use campus shower facilities. Another bill, signed into law in 2016, requires California community colleges to designate a staff member as a liaison to support homeless students, which Foothill has yet to formally do.

Bodo is spearheading a June 14 summit on student homelessness at Foothill that will bring together students, faculty, staff, community members, civic and nonprofit leaders from throughout California to work on short- and long-term solutions to address the community college student housing crisis. The day-long event will include testimonials from students across the state and problem-solving sessions that the organizers hope will spur concrete action after the event.

Thanks to a chance encounter with a diner at the Los Altos restaurant Bodo works at, Bodo now has a roof over his head. Since November, he's rented a room in a Los Altos Hills house for $1,000 a month. He has 12 housemates and his room is sparse, but nobody bothers him. His landlord, who didn't impose a standard requirement of earning at least three times the monthly rent, is kind, he said. The house is a 10-minute drive from Foothill, where he still spends most of his time.

Bodo plans to transfer to a four-year college or university this fall. In April, he received acceptance letters from UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego and posted them to his Facebook page.

"What a crazy turnaround," he wrote. "I really never thought I'd go to college, let alone university!"

In the meantime, he's seizing every opportunity he can to talk about what it's like to be a homeless student, a reminder to those who have more power than he does — school administrators, elected officials, civic leaders — of the need to take action.

"I would love to see administration help push toward that goal because it feels impossible for students to do it on our own," he said.

Jimii Lewis: 'Everybody deserves housing'

Some days Jimii Lewis feels like he's barely hanging on. He attends Foothill, works two jobs, worries about a custody battle over his 3-year-old son and is running for a seat on student government. He lives in his family home in East Palo Alto, but how long he'll be able stay is uncertain. His grandmother, who owned the house, died without a will, and his aunt wants to sell. He's trying to convince her not to: He barely makes enough to pay her $300 in monthly rent and wants to fix up the five-bedroom house to rent out rooms to other struggling community college students.

"If it doesn't work I'm going to find a way to make a way," he said in an interview at Foothill last week. "That's all I've known."

Lewis grew up in East Palo Alto but moved to Georgia when he was 10 years old. At 16 years old, he entered the foster care system. By 18 years old, he was on his own, sleeping in slides at parks to stay warm during Georgia winters. He felt self-conscious and unfocused at school. He just hoped nobody noticed that he had slept outside the night before or wasn't able to brush his teeth that morning.

Lewis returned to the Bay Area to play football at Foothill at the urging of his uncle, the school's running back coach. He didn't have anywhere to stay when he arrived, so he lived out of his car. Before moving into the family home in East Palo Alto, he slept in a van parked outside — which was "bittersweet," he said, because it was spacious, but cold.

Sleeping in a car takes its toll on the mind, body and spirit, Lewis said. It's not only physically uncomfortable, "it's belittling," he said. "It's hard to wake up after you sleep in your car knowing you had to sleep in your car."

Lewis worked as a mover to make ends meet, but the situation was untenable: Work interfered with his ability to get to practice and games on time, and football interfered with his ability to make more money. As a young black man, he thought football was his way to advance in the world. Conflict with his football coach, who he felt didn't understand the gravity of his living situation, eventually got him kicked off the team, and all that was left was going to school.

Lewis felt stuck — like in a "dark mud," at odds with the mindset of the world he was brought up in, in which earning a living is prioritized over education.

"Education is obviously a way of bettering yourself, but if you're not bringing money in, in the situations that I come from, it's not helping you. I can learn all I want, but if it's not going to bring me any money it's not going to matter," Lewis said. "That's not my standpoint, but that's the stigma I come from."

Lewis considered dropping out of school "so many times." It was just too hard. He credits Foothill's Umoja program, a tight-knit community group for African-American students, with keeping him there. An Umoja-organized tour of historically black colleges inspired him to switch to a more challenging STEM major. He hopes to eventually get a master's degree in biomechanical engineering and a doctorate in quantum physics — degrees he said he would need to understand how to make prosthetics for his young son, whose feet were amputated.

"If it wasn't for someone who actually, genuinely cared about their students," Lewis said of his Umoja instructor, "I wouldn't have been here."

Not all Foothill teachers and staff he has encountered have been as understanding, he said. Increasing awareness among those who interact most frequently with homeless and housing insecure students is also critical, Lewis said.

"It's not just about the institution," he said. "It's definitely about the teachers."

Foothill should also do more to support programs for minority and low-income students, such as Umoja, Lewis said. While not directly related to housing, the safety net of students who come from similar backgrounds, and understanding teachers, is what kept him moored to school when anxieties about housing and money threatened to pull him away. (Minority students, as well as students who have served in the military, former foster youth, and formerly incarcerated students are all at greater risk of basic needs insecurity, according to the #RealCollege survey.)

"It's hard to focus on (school) when you've got distractions from wants. Just imagine the distractions that happen when they're needs," Lewis said. "It's not like people want to have housing. They need to have housing."

Lewis recently met Bodo, who along with Foothill staff encouraged him to run for student government. His campaign is focused on giving voice to the voiceless at Foothill: minority, older, homeless and housing insecure students like himself. He thinks simply caring more for these groups, through funding programs and acknowledging their unique needs inside and outside of the classroom, would go a long way.

"It needs to be recognized how inhumane it is that we don't consider the fact that everybody deserves housing, especially if you're a student trying to better yourself and get your education," he said.

Rey Blanco: 'There should not be a price on education'

For the first time in his life, at 36 years old, Rey Blanco has found purpose in education.

He enrolled at San Jose City College in January, where he's taking more than a full course load, is running for student body president and produces a podcast for the college radio station called "Turn Your Life Around with Rey Blanco." He interviews formerly incarcerated men, like himself, who have turned their lives around to become mentors and role models. He wants to become a psychiatrist, inspired by his own experiences with mental health as a young boy in the foster care system.

But his grasp on this new life is tenuous. For much of his life, Blanco has been without a permanent, stable home, and it's a history that's hard to shake. He only recently found a room to rent after months of couch surfing, sleeping in Bart stations and living out of his car.

"I've been experiencing homelessness my whole life and I'm really trying to get out of that," Blanco said. A black rubber bracelet with "I WILL SUCCEED!" in white text circles his tattooed wrist. It reminds him that he's found his way at school.

"Before education I was lost," he said. "This has truly helped me find my way."

When you ask Blanco where he's from, he says California. His mother was incarcerated on a drug offense when he was growing up in Bakersfield. His father wasn't in the picture and his grandmother's house was full, so he bounced from foster home to foster home throughout Northern and Southern California: Morgan Hill, Watsonville, Gilroy, Santa Cruz, Capitola, Aptos, Fresno, Long Beach. He experienced abuse, he said, and was put on psychiatric medications that he's now not sure were good for him.

When Blanco turned 18 years old, he "got into trouble" that landed him in jail. When he got out, he worked in construction and cut people's hair for free. He thought he wanted to go to cosmetology school; a more academic path wasn't in the realm of possibility for him, in his mind. He eventually got on the waiting list for San Jose City College's cosmetology program but had a last-minute change of heart and decided to pursue psychiatry.

"For a long time I told myself that I couldn't read; I couldn't do books," Blanco said. "When I went to school I started reading books and started picking up on what the teacher was talking about and putting two and two together with education. That's where I felt happy. I found my passion in education."

Until about a month ago, Blanco was homeless. Before he owned a car, he'd stay with friends. For awhile he slept at a Bart station in San Francisco. He'd go in late at night, plug his cellphone in to charge and sleep on top of his phone. He didn't always have money for food or public transportation, relying on the McDonald's dollar menu and the kindness of Caltrain, VTA and Bart employees. He just kept going, he said.

"I've been trying to make it, make it, make it. Every time I get ahead or I get some type of money, things fall apart. I never have anything or anybody to fall back on, which I don't think I should, but man," he said, "it's a struggle."

On a whim this spring, Blanco posted an online plea: a Craigslist ad with a picture of himself, an explanation of his situation and a hope for an affordable room to rent. Amongst the inevitably strange replies was one real one: a computer programmer with an extra room in San Jose. They met and agreed on a monthly rent, $700, that for now Blanco can afford. He can finally lock his own door, feel safe and focus on school — a feeling he hasn't had for most of his life.

Blanco didn't seek out housing resources or help from San Jose City College but wants to make it easier for other students who are homeless or housing insecure to find the help they need to survive in the Bay Area. In his campaign for student president, he wants to advocate for these students at a regional as well as local level.

"There should not be a price on education," Blanco said.