Homelessness has come to California’s public colleges, just as it has to every other institution in the state. In the community college system, a recent report found that 19% of nearly 40,000 students surveyed had been homeless at some point during the previous year. Some community college campuses have food banks, and all are required by law to make showers in their athletic facilities available to homeless students. But few of the 114 community college campuses offer housing to any of their 2.1 million students, let alone homeless ones.
So Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) has come up with a creative idea: Why not let homeless students who live in their cars park overnight on campus? Although that’s not a solution for homelessness, it would offer a short-term fix for homeless students with cars who are already working on a long-term answer — getting a college degree to broaden their options and increase their earning power.
Berman’s Assembly Bill 302 would require community colleges with parking facilities to allow homeless students who live in their vehicles to park in lots overnight. The bill sailed through the Assembly but is facing resistance now in the Senate from the colleges’ trade association, the Community College League of California. A dozen of the 73 community college districts and several individual colleges have also officially registered their opposition.
A Community College League spokesperson calls the bill well-intentioned but cites numerous potential problems: Would a college be liable if a homeless student died in his or her car from extreme heat or cold? What if the student were assaulted? Could a student live in the car with a child? What if the college needs to hire extra security and provide new bathroom facilities? The state should reimburse the schools for the costs the bill would impose, but that’s a complicated, lengthy process. In the meantime, colleges would have to pay for this.
These are legitimate concerns, but none is insurmountable. There are ways to address them. The bill would require colleges to obtain liability waivers from the students who sleep in their lots. (They routinely do that for field trips.) The schools could prohibit students from having children — or anyone else — living in cars with them on campus. Colleges might try working with local police departments to help with security if they can’t afford to hire more officers, although there’s no guarantee that the local departments would want to take on the extra responsibility.
To limit the number of homeless parkers, the bill would also allow overnight parking privileges just for serious students in good standing at the college who are enrolled in at least six units per semester.
And the bill would sunset Dec. 31, 2022. So if the program isn’t working, it wouldn’t have to be renewed.
Providing a safe parking place isn’t the only way colleges can help homeless students. The bill would let campuses opt out of overnight parking if they offered emergency grants to secure housing, hotel vouchers through a public agency or community organization, and referrals to rapid rehousing services. Meanwhile, several other bills winding their way through the legislature would offer emergency aid to students experiencing severe financial problems. Any of those would help support homeless students and other students in dire straits.
But these schools (and legislators) need to keep in mind that homelessness is an unusually knotty problem. If it were easy to solve, we would have already built all the housing we need and (almost) no one would be homeless. This bill offers, simply, a temporary but much needed measure of help.
The Community College League complains that its members shouldn’t have to do this when they are already significantly underfunded. (Community colleges serve 74% of the students in the state’s public higher-education system.) That may be a legitimate complaint, but the homelessness problem has to be tackled — with or without extra state dollars. This is the reality of educating a portion of students in the community college system in California. If colleges can’t let them stay in their parking lots through the night, then they need to come up with other specific, immediate ways to help them. Otherwise, those students may end up not getting through college at all.