Rachel Ralston, Principal, LeSar Development Consultants
If you had the opportunity to go to college, you probably have a story or two about the places you lived—maybe the dorm room with the epic dance parties, or the roommate who kept you up until midnight every night learning the opening guitar riff to Sweet Child o’ Mine. If you’re going to community college in California, however, the odds are about one in ten that your story has something to do with not having a home at all.
That’s according to the California Community Colleges #RealCollege Survey, which collected responses from around 40,000 community college students in 2018 and analyzed their rates of housing and basic needs insecurity. Students responding to the survey detailed their challenges getting enough to eat (for example, 41 percent said they skipped meals for financial reasons), whether they were able to meet all housing costs, including rent and utilities (approximately 50 percent said they were not), and whether they experienced homelessness. In the latter case, 11 percent of respondents were homeless—living outdoors, in a vehicle, or some other place not meant for habitation.
Numbers like these have prompted recent action by policy makers seeking to level the playing field for struggling students. One example is Assembly Bill 302, written by Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), which would require community colleges to provide overnight access to parking facilities to students living in their vehicles. The bill moved forward to the Senate last month, clearing the Assembly by a vote of sixty to eight. If enacted, it could significantly improve conditions for students with no choice but to sleep in their cars.
Among the concerns for these students is finding a place to park where they won’t be ticketed (a challenge that gets more difficult as cities like San Diego pass broad bans on vehicle habitation). In addition to that, they face exposure to theft or assault, complications with routine activities like paying bills, and, of course, trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Not surprisingly, the #RealCollege Survey found that academic grades were lower among students experiencing food or housing insecurity, including homelessness.
By expanding “safe parking” options at college campuses, AB302 could help provide students with a secure environment, a bare minimum for most to continue working and going to school. For some this may amount to an opportunity to find their way back into a home. In addition, just like high-performing homeless shelters, these safe parking programs should focus resources on connecting students to housing. This could include referrals to mainstream homeless services through the Coordinated Entry System, as well as onsite roommate matching programs, landlord-tenant mediation, and even flexible financial assistance.
If it passes, AB302 would be an invitation to community colleges across the state to provide a safe space for their most challenged students. It should also be seen as an opportunity to provide real solutions—starting with those that focus on housing.