In School, On the Street 

Homelessness and hunger afflict a surprisingly large number of college and university students.

click to enlarge Aidan Hill ended up homeless and couch surfing while at UC. Berkeley.

Photos by Lance Yamamoto

Aidan Hill ended up homeless and couch surfing while at UC. Berkeley.

College student Rossi DeLozada was evicted last year from the studio in Oakland's Acorn Projects that he shared with his brother and father. The family has been separated ever since, with each member couch-surfing in different parts of the Bay Area. Because City College of San Francisco has labeled the 18-year-old a "Homeless At-Risk Transitional Student," he can receive housing assistance, meal vouchers, a computer lab and other services. But though DeLozada appreciates the school's help, the stress of juggling academics and homelessness is hard to manage. He has considered dropping out of CCSF due to his housing issues.

"You're working with deadlines, and with deadlines always comes stress, and that stress added on with the high-stress situation of not having a place to go — not having housing — is just way more stress," the 18-year-old said. "It's just two things that are not natural."

As a homeless college student without financial resources who also has to work, DeLozada faces a struggle each day — but not a unique one. A rising population of Bay Area college students lacks food, housing, and even water to bathe in. A recent student survey of 57 California Community Colleges showed that 50 percent of students reported experiencing food insecurity within the past month, 60 percent reported experiencing housing insecurity in the past year, and 19 percent reported being homeless at one point or another in the past year, according to Colleen Ganley Ammerman of the Chancellor's Office. Students at four-year universities also face such challenges. A survey of California State University students from January of 2018 found that 41.6 percent said they had suffered from housing insecurity that year, and 10.9 percent had reported experiencing homelessness in the prior 12 months. University of California students surveyed by the 2018 UC Global Foods Initiative found that 5 percent had experienced homelessness.

"Cost of living is the most expensive aspect of going to college in the United States," said Ruben Canedo of UC Berkeley's Food Security Committee. "A lot of people think that tuition and fees are the most expensive and that's not true. Students are arguably having one of the most expensive times to go to college because tuition is at one of the highest points and cost of living is at one of the highest points. The equation that we consider is a broken equation." 

When he was a student at UC Berkeley, Canedo arrived on a full ride scholarship and worked as a peer advisor and a researcher, as well as working for a program called Summer Bridge. Yet despite being paid for all three jobs, Canedo could not have afforded his housing security deposit if one of his mentors had not loaned him the money. "I would've been homeless for that summer," he recalled. "I would have bounced around." Given that the Bay Area's housing crisis has only gotten worse, Canedo believes students are suffering more than he did back in 2011. 

Today's college students have fewer family resources that they can direct toward their education than did prior generations, said Vanessa Coca, senior research associate at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. As educational costs and the cost of living have increased in recent years, family income has seen little growth, particularly for the poorest families. Plus, financial aid applications are exceedingly long and require family information that some students lack access to, Coca said. Students appear to be dependents of their parents even in situations where they are contributing more financially to their households. "Financial aid hasn't kept pace with those costs particularly at the state and local level we've seen funding for colleges go down," Coca said.

The students identified as at risk in The Hope Center's community college survey are often independent or parents. Many are the first in their families to attend college and many come from foster care, or are reentering society after serving time. Coca said the groups most likely to experience basic needs insecurity are students of color, LGBTQ students, and former foster youth for whom financial aid forms can be particularly hard to fill out. 

Jordan Foster is 19 and considering school, but is on the fence. As a low-income person who has seen homelessness firsthand, Foster feels limited by his situation. "Makes you think that you can't even get to college because you're too worried about 'How am I going to get food tonight?' and stuff like that," he said.

These issues are particularly hard-hitting in the East Bay, where the cost of living is extraordinarily high. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, California alone makes up 38 percent of the population of unaccompanied homeless youth ages 18-25 in the United States.

Many students who cannot afford their own residence couch-surf. Others end up on the street. Another alternative is living in one's car, the approach taken by recent UC Berkeley graduate Yesica Prado. She graduated from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in 2018 and is now 27 years old. While at UC Berkeley, Prado could not afford to pay for housing. She said she thought of dropping out in her first semester when she realized she was going to end up without housing. "I was really on the edge but one of my professors said that I shouldn't," she said. "I knew I wouldn't get a chance like that again." 

Although Prado says some people told her not to bother with college, she had earned a scholarship and wanted to be the first person in her family to get a graduate degree. So she used her student loan to buy a recreational vehicle, which is now her home. She is glad she stayed, and is happy to have her RV. After working as a volunteer at homeless shelters, Prado says she felt safer living in a car. Now she isn't receiving financial support from anyone and works as a freelancer and at a camera store. She also works as an activist for granting more rights to people who live in their cars, since she believes it allows them to be safer and more independent than they would be on the streets. 

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