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. 

Like Prado, many students facing homelessness look at college as a means to get ahead. "Education is a pathway out of poverty," said Shahera Hyatt, the Director of the California Homeless Youth Project. "Our earnings are going to be so much greater over our lifetime if we are able to have not just a high school diploma but a Bachelors Degree or even higher. So we know that having low-wage jobs won't get anybody out of poverty, in fact it really keeps people in poverty. ... It's a small investment for a long-term gain. And it's not even just for that one person, it's for all of society." After all, noted Hyatt, who was a homeless student herself from middle school until her time at American River College, dropping out of college to work will not necessarily save students from homelessness. 

"It truly opened my future to earning in a completely different income bracket and escaping poverty," said "Steve," who suffered from hunger and housing insecurity as a Cal student but now works as an associate scientist at an accredited nanotechnology company. "And the name brand Berkeley certainly goes a long way." The graduate of Cal's esteemed Department of Chemistry asked not to be identified so that his former struggles with homelessness do not affect his career.

Steve said he barely graduated, but not because he was a bad student. "My first semester, I was pretty sure that I was going to drop out." The 2008 recession had been hard on his family, which lost its house in Sacramento, where he first attended community college. After being accepted to UC Berkeley on a full ride, he recalled being "super excited." But his excitement quickly turned to fear when he was housed with a violent and mentally ill roommate, which prompted him to leave his apartment, where he believed he was unsafe. Then his scholarship checks got held up until the end of the first semester. So for several months, he couch-surfed. He said he nearly spent some nights in the library, and even considered a homeless shelter, until the shelter tragically burned down. "That is a reality for a lot of students their entire time at Berkeley," he said.

Berkeley resident Aidan Hill started attending UC Berkeley in 2016, but cannot afford to finish and graduate. While at UC Berkeley, Hill worked three jobs, and had already gotten an associates degree from River City College. After being harassed for their sexual orientation while living in the UC Berkeley dorms, Hill was unable to find other affordable housing. In 2017, Hill was displaced from UC Berkeley and ended up homeless and couch surfing, afraid to visit a homeless shelter. Dropping out was not a good option for Hill, who returned to Berkeley for sanctuary, not having another safe place to go back to. "I want to finish what I started," Hill said. "If they didn't want students like me who are reliant on the state ... then they shouldn't have accepted us in the first place."

Now at the age of 26, Hill speaks out against the school's failure to help students access their education. After running for city council in 2018, Hill has attended Berkeley City Council meetings, speaking out for the rights of homeless people. Hill hopes to finish school some day.

Struggling students and their allies are attempting to combat their problems in a variety of innovative ways — from opening food pantries and partnering with school nutrition programs to building tiny houses and providing homeless students access to locker rooms for showering. But the numbers of homeless youth in the Bay Area have only increased over the last several years. It is not a problem that any one organization or person can fix. 

To augment the problem of hunger amongst college students, food pantries have cropped up at almost every East Bay college including: UC Berkeley, Mills College, Berkeley City College, Merritt College, Laney College, Contra Costa College, and Chabot College. Canedo founded Cal's pantry in 2013. During the 2017-2018 school year, it served about 5,000 students.

At Chabot College in Hayward, students have been organizing farmers-market-style food pantry pop-ups since 2017. Now they are cultivating a garden that includes edibles for students to cook with and expanding to a basic needs center dubbed the "life pantry," which will have its own building. "One of the first things that we try to do is reduce the stigma of coming to get free food," said Chabot graduate and pantry founder Sofia Sanchez Pillot Saavedra, noting that everyone is welcome without requirements. "I wish that we didn't need this. I wish people weren't going hungry but it's a reality. ... If our students aren't well fed, they're not learning and they're not graduating and they're dropping out and essentially the college loses money. ... A lot of our students are in poverty and on top of that you add the fact that you have a very different demographic of the kind of student that goes to a community college vs. the student that goes straight to a four year."

The events hosted by Sanchez Pillot Saavedra and her fellow classmates get about 250 people a month, not just students. People from all over the community come to get food — including members of the college's faculty and staff. The pantry also incorporates education, working with the school's nutrition class to create recipes and cookbooks with ingredients available at the pantry. Some volunteers bring food home to their families. Many students not only lack financial support from their parents, but are relied upon for support themselves.

Part of the problem with financial aid, volunteer Enya Daang said, is that many students are unable to apply for it. So in addition to offering food and sometimes clothing or other necessities, the Chabot pop-ups sometimes have tables from the college's financial aid office and various campus organizations. "A lot of students start their financial aid packet, but don't finish it for some reason," Daang said. "Like they get stuck on a question and they just get discouraged. So we have people from the financial aid office come table."

Both Daang and Sanchez Pillot Saavedra have now transferred to UC Berkeley where they are full-time students. But they also work other jobs, including at Chabot. The Chabot pantry, as well as those at UC Berkeley and the Peralta colleges, are supported heavily by the Alameda County Food Bank. The Food Bank not only provides food, but offers nutritional education and outreach to help people sign up for CalFresh, California's food stamp program, which many students qualify for. "Students suffer as much as every race or demographic we have out there," a Food Bank manager said.

Contra Costa College has had its own pantry since 2017, which is primarily supported by the Contra Costa County Food Bank. Alumnus and former student life coordinator Joel Nicholson-Shanks is proud of the college's program, particularly its free breakfast program, which provides food for students cooked by students, not offered anywhere else. College administrators have been supportive, he said, never so much as suggesting that a food pantry might not be necessary. But there was some initial difficulty getting students to come in. "We thought students would rush in," Nicholson-Shanks recalled. "We were wrong." Noting that there was a lot of stigma about having to ask for free food, he and his colleagues made an effort to break down students' attitudes regarding the shelter. Nicholson-Shanks was motivated by his personal experience. "There were times when I went to bed hungry when I was in college," he said.

The college also adopted measures for students whose housing situation made it hard for them to keep up their personal hygiene. The school now opens its locker rooms for the homeless to use for a period each day. "We've had homeless folks around the campus probably for the last ten years or more," said Buildings and Grounds Manager Bruce King. "I think we have a population of about ten or fifteen that live in the general vicinity of our campus." He said he has a soft spot for them when they run into each other at the student lounge.

The nonprofit group Safe Time focuses on housing homeless youth, specifically students, through a home-sharing program. Hosts in the East Bay take in college students for one to six months at a time from a variety of schools including Holy Names, UC Berkeley, Mills, and the Peralta colleges. Safe Time's Director of College Placements, Christi Carpenter, believes low-income students have great potential if they can access a high education. "I feel like they are actually the most promising leaders," she said. "They have the opposite of entitlement. I think they tend to be resourceful and creative and very hardworking and take their education very seriously."

"Sarah," a Safe Time student concerned that she might lose her job if identified by her actual name, is currently living in the East Bay and attending Cal. She is an international student who cannot go back to her home country because it is unsafe, and has no family here to help her. This spring, Sarah had to take out loans for school and could not afford rent. "I went to the dean's office and they told me if I don't get a chance with Safe Time I'm going to have to go to a shelter. That was scary. ... I can work but my salary is not enough to pay for rent." 

Luckily, Sarah has been able to obtain temporary housing through Safe Time. She works long hours, but has not been able to find a job in her field. At the time of this interview, Sarah had to find other housing soon, but did not know yet where she would go. "Academics comes second, because first you have to have a place to live in — and then you can worry about your grades and stuff."Another organization devoted solely to housing homeless youth in the East Bay is the Youth Spirit Artworks Tiny House project. Youth Spirit Artworks participants recently appeared at the Berkeley and Oakland City Council meetings seeking for funding for their tiny house project. The village will be built on the property of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in East Oakland, where the first 12 houses are scheduled to be open in December. Assistant Project Director Reginald Gentry said the group can cheaply build about one tiny house per week if they put in the time. "Some people are living as though their ketchup needs to be gourmet ketchup," Director Sally Herships said. "And other people are looking for ketchup bottles out of dumpsters." 

The organization is backed by 30 congregations including Christian churches, Buddhist groups, and Jewish temples. "There's a Jewish value ... that all people are created in the image of the divine and one of the things that gets in the way for me walking through the world as it is today is the challenge of interacting with people on the street, seeing the housing crisis," said Rahel Smith, one member of the group that petitioned the Berkeley Council in June. "For me, it brings in full focus that we're not living in a community that treats people as though we all have a spark of the divine in us. And this project is one way to move towards building a community that reflects our values." Retired Rabbi Harry Manhoff told the council, "It's been the most exciting and most important experience of my life and it has given my life meaning." 

West Side Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Ken Chambers hosts three Laney College students in houses on his church's property. Chambers, who was homeless briefly during the 2008 recession, said his church community is very sensitive to homelessness. The church parking lot allows people who live in their cars to stay there, and allows a barber truck and shower truck come to give free haircuts and showers. Laundry machines are also provided. Although he wishes the students he is housing would do more of the volunteer work he asks of them, he wants to continue the program, which he believes is helpful in several ways. "Their grades were like Ds when they were sleeping in their cars and couch surfing," Chambers said. "Since they've been in here for their first semester, they raised to a B+. So we felt really good about that."

Chambers himself is an alumnus of Laney College, which he attended with family support. Although he worked while in school, he dropped out when he started having children. "It's very difficult for students to be self-sufficient without family and other support," he said. 

Several of the people involved in the project, and several of the future residents, will be students. "It's extremely important for people to go to school especially in order to change the systemic injustice that we face with education," founder Sally Hindman said. 

Youth Spirit Artworks participant Ezekiel Espinoza is 19 years old, and had to drop out of school after his family lost their house. He currently works four jobs and supports himself, his mother, and his younger brother. He wants to pursue business and is considering UC Berkeley once he has saved some money for himself. He paints tiny houses for Youth Spirit Artworks, "When you go to YSA you get paid to do events and you get paid to do certain stuff so that's the cool part," he said. "And city government supporting YSA, it definitely benefits the youth there while teaching them job skills really helps."

Rossi DeLozada works at Youth Spirit Artworks as a tiny house builder and art sales leader. Soon DeLozada will be among the first to live in one of the tiny houses. The place is a good outlet for him. DeLozada said that pursuing education seems like the best way in the long run to avoid being trapped in minimum-wage jobs. "You can do something and study for something that you like and actually are passionate about instead of just begin depressed and working at a Starbucks or as a waiter," he said. "Because I've worked as a busser ... but I was just feeling like I was wasting my time because I was saving money, but all the little money I would spend would just be to help out my father and stuff."

DeLozada and his brother share a card for the CalFresh Food Stamps program, which gives him $100 a month for food. And a friend introduced him to a Sikh temple in El Sobrante, where DeLozada goes for food. Still, he said he finds it hard to focus on school while he is constantly thinking about what he is going to do after class and where he will go. But soon he be one of the first students to live in one of YSA's tiny houses. He hopes to be able to pursue his dream of being an artist and a musician.

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