On a sunny day last April, Anthony White, a 29-year-old Marine Corps veteran, told a room of California state legislators how he had survived a semester as a cash-strapped student at MiraCosta College: he’d slept in his car.
Mr. White parked his Chevy Silverado late at night in warehouse lots, showering at his gym, and he was once kicked out of a Lowe’s for brushing his teeth in the bathroom. The experience, he said, was “traumatizing.”
Homelessness among American college students has become an increasingly visible problem, with those who attend community colleges hit the hardest. Seventeen percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the last year, according to a 2019 survey of close to 167,000 college students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia. And half reported housing insecurity, paying only part of their rent, skimping on utility bills, or sleeping on friends’ couches and sometimes in their cars.
To help, Mr. White has become one of their fiercest advocates, pushing community colleges in California to open parking lots at night, so students who spend at least some nights sleeping in their vehicles — an estimated 4 percent in California, according to a Hope Center report — can get rest, be near bathrooms and avoid illegally parking in unsafe places far from campus.
That April afternoon, inside the State Capitol, the plan received overwhelming support from students, social workers, and community college faculty members, who heralded it as “creative” and “moral.” Soon after, a bill that codified the plan passed in the State Assembly.
Shahera Hyatt, the director of the California Homeless Youth Project, told legislators the state ought to have a “bias towards action” in the face of such a crisis — even if that action wasn’t a full-fledged solution.
But as news of the bill spread, controversy did too. Mayors sparred in local newspapers over whether it would help or hurt their towns. A report released by the Community College League of California estimated it would cost the state close to $69 million a year, with security and sanitation costs making up the bulk of the expense.
Legislators argued that it sent an insulting message to students about what the state considered “adequate housing.” Even some of the nation’s most ardent advocates for the homeless said they saw the bill as well-meaning, but shortsighted, as it didn’t address the needs of students hardest hit by homelessness: the vast majority who don’t have cars they can rely on.
By September, after the State Senate Appropriations Committee released a watered-down version of the bill, its author Marc Berman, an assembly member from Palo Alto, pulled it, citing insufficient support.
The story of the “safe parking” bill, as it came to be known in California, no doubt felt like a discouraging defeat for Mr. White and other community college students who have relied on their cars for shelter. But it made national headlines, increasing awareness about a growing higher education problem and raising important questions about what social safety net services community colleges ought to offer and who should pay for them.
“Everyone grants that the problem exists,” said Larry Galizio, president and chief executive of the Community College League of California, which lobbied against the bill, calling it a “one-size fits all” answer to a complex problem. “The question is how do we approach this in a way that is pragmatic and that actually constitutes something that approaches a solution.”
Advocates for homeless students say the biggest hurdle in addressing the housing needs of community college students in California and across the country stems, in large part, from public confusion over who attends these two-year institutions.
“Popular perception of the community college student is that he or she lives at home and enjoys family support,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center, which conducts surveys and produces policy papers on the economic challenges facing college students.
“A more accurate description is that these are people who are very much on their own,” she said. “They are working adults with children and they are in college because they are not making enough money and are trying to get ahead.”
Indeed, advocates like Stephanie Hernandez, a formerly homeless student at Palomar Community College, near San Diego, where Mr. White eventually transferred, said the choices many of her peers are forced to make are heartbreaking. Ms. Hernandez works in her school’s food and nutrition center, handing out produce, bread and canned goods, often to friends.
“People will say I haven’t bought food or paid my bills so I can put gas in my car or buy books or pay rent,” she said.
To rectify this, most California community college campuses now have food pantries, like the one at Palomar, offering groceries, toiletries and sometimes school supplies and clothes. California law requires community college campuses to provide showers for homeless students.
And some offer free laundry service, dinners and snacks during the day. A handful have even instituted their own free car park programs, even though the state fell short, this past summer, of requiring it.
But so far, most campuses, even those hardest hit by student homelessness, have failed to provide broad solutions, in part because those solutions are costly, and because there is limited research on what the best fixes actually are.
Student advocates have pushed nonprofits to finance pilot programs, to both assist students in a crunch and provide reams of data on what really works.
At one program, at Tacoma Community College in Washington, administrators in 2014, partnered with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide housing to dozens of students.
Initial student tracking found 60 percent of the students in the program graduated or remained enrolled, compared with 16 percent of an equally challenged comparison group, who had not been helped. The program is being expanded to assist students at the University of Washington, as well.
Another program, overseen by Jovenes Inc. — a Los Angeles-based housing provider for homeless youth — joins Los Angeles County and private foundations to offer housing assistance for students at three East Los Angeles community colleges, by way of rental subsidies, temporary apartments or rooms in the homes of hosts who live near the campuses.
The students are also receiving financial planning assistance, academic support and mental health counseling.
And last February Massachusetts began a program that connected four community colleges with four-year campuses to offer housing, meals and some public assistance to 20 full-time students.
Preliminary findings from these efforts indicate that some of the least expensive and most efficient programs partner with public welfare agencies — like housing authorities and federal nutrition assistance offices — that already provide services to the disadvantaged. And they take into account how limited student funds really are.
In Tacoma, for example, students sometimes received vouchers for apartment rent, and did not use them because they weren’t also given the money needed for security deposits. Officials there began providing that, too, when necessary.
Avoiding unnecessary red tape when qualifying students for assistance is also key, according to Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Texas Amarillo College in the Texas Panhandle, which has received national recognition for its work helping at-risk students.
Many students at other campuses, without the proper paperwork, can find themselves spending hours inside college offices, only to be denied assistance. But not at Amarillo.
“Within 24 hours we have a solution,” Mr. Lowery-Hart said, “paid the rent directly, paid for the car to be fixed or in some cases given money directly to students that doesn’t violate their financial aid. If they are in an emergency and they need help, they don’t need bureaucracy. That’s our approach.”
Last June, even before the “safe parking” bill failed, the California state budget did still reflect the myriad conversations the bill had generated about the needs of community college students. The state approved $9 million in annual funding for the rapid rehousing of homeless students at the state’s community colleges, as well as a one-time $3.9 million allocation for student hunger needs.
In the meantime, on a recent evening earlier this month, community college students across the state hunkered down in their cars for the night. Some slept beneath underpasses, on residential streets, or on the edges of warehouse lots.
One of them was Stephen Cooper, a student at San Diego City College, where this semester, he is taking history and physical science classes, while holding down a part-time job as a parking attendant.
That night, he was parked in a church lot near campus, as part of a safe car-park program hosted by Dreams for Change, a local nonprofit, that assists the homeless.
What did it mean to have a place to park? “Security,” Mr. Cooper said, before slipping into his Nissan for the night.