John’s savings were long gone when his under-the-table housing arrangement fell through last winter.
Midterms had begun at Cal Poly, and the aerospace engineering major didn’t have a backup plan — at least not one that wouldn’t require a security deposit, or first and last month’s rent.
“So I started staying in my car one or two nights,” said John, a 35-year-old transfer student from the small Central Valley town of Exeter.
John, who requested not to have his last name appear in publication, is one of a growing number of students within the California State University system facing homelessness and food insecurity, according to a recent survey.
At Cal Poly alone, the survey found, hundreds of students don’t have a stable living situation or didn’t have enough money to consistently feed themselves.
But until he received a fortuitous tip, John had no idea there were university programs in place — from housing assistance to free food — for students in just his situation.
As a nontraditional student living in a new city, John was paying $450 in cash to rent a makeshift room in Arroyo Grande and commuting to Cal Poly.
When the homeowners unexpectedly relocated, John was given one week to make other arrangements. He loaded his belongings into his 2007 Toyota Camry — and that’s when things started to spiral.
He got sick and ran a 103-degree fever for seven straight days while living out of his car, strategically parking around campus at night in hopes of going unnoticed.
He considered leaving school and moving back to Exeter.
“I was just ready to give up,” John said.
Overwhelmed and hungry, he struggled to focus during lectures. A professor told him to leave class and go to the Health Center. The Health Center instructed him to go home and stay there.
“There were times when I was walking through the rain with a fever, sick, trying to find a place just to use a restroom that’s open. That sucked,” John said. “I think that was the darkest part for me. That was a pretty lonely feeling.”
A $2,700 trip to the emergency room followed. He had no health insurance. By then, John was eating once per day, whenever he could, and had no place to store food.
“For weeks, I was just in my car,” John said. “It wasn’t just the hunger aspect or being sick, it was feeling alienated.
“I felt like I just didn’t fit in.”
He isn’t the only one.
‘Bridge that gap’
A comprehensive CSU-wide study released Feb. 7 showed that 41.6 percent of students are food insecure, and 10.9 percent have experienced homelessness one or more times in the 12 months prior to when the survey was conducted.
First-generation African American students face the highest rates of insecurity, with 18 percent dealing with homelessness and an eye-popping 65.9 percent experiencing food insecurity, the study showed.
The survey was distributed via email to all 21,306 students at Cal Poly in late 2016, generating 2,192 responses.
Of the Cal Poly students surveyed, 590 (26.9 percent) reported food insecurity, and 270 (12.3 percent) reported being homeless.
Cal Poly’s director of well-being and health education Genie Kim says homelessness is an all-encompassing term for students who do not have stable housing. It can include people who couch-surf or live out of their car or RV.
“Each student has their own unique journey and experience,” Kim said.
John’s luck started to turn when someone — he can’t remember who — said there was a woman on campus who gives out meal vouchers.
He emailed Joy Pedersen, Cal Poly’s associate dean of students for student support, success and retention.
Pedersen responded almost immediately and asked to schedule a meeting. John was put into an on-campus emergency housing facility with clean sheets, a hot meal and his own bathroom.
“She had everything that she needed to turn my life around that same day,” John said.
A critical lifeline
John was one of 21 Cal Poly students who used emergency housing in 2016-17. Another 12 have already used that resource during this academic year. Students typically stay one to two quarters, depending on need, and there’s no wait time.
“University Housing has been able to accommodate all requests immediately,” Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier said in an email.
Being placed in emergency housing proved to be a critical point for John. He stayed through the end of the quarter, his scholarship money kicked in ahead of spring term, and he found a job and place to rent in San Luis Obispo. He still lives there today.
John also received a Cal Poly Cares grant, a one-time $2,000 stipend for “unexpected emergency expenses.”
“A lot of times, for students who are living paycheck to paycheck or day to day, if something happens that is not foreseeable, it can really derail their whole experience,” Pedersen said. “The purpose of these is to really help them bridge that gap.”
Last year, 164 students received a Cal Poly Cares grant — funded by private donors — with $232,000 being awarded through the initiative.
‘Not just a pain in the stomach’
Pedersen’s office oversees the meal voucher program, which provides students with one all-you-can-eat meal ticket to the campus dining hall. Cal Poly distributed 1,023 meal vouchers in 2016-17.
The on-campus food pantry and the CalFresh outreach program also have helped students navigate the complex issue of food insecurity.
The food pantry offers a wide variety of free healthy options, as well as toiletries, school supplies, backpacks and other donated items for students in need.
“It’s a delicate matter,” Kim said of students’ visits to the pantry. “We don’t want to follow students, and we don’t want to make them feel like we’re watching them. We give them the space to get what they want.”
Since the food pantry opened in 2014, the number of students taking advantage of the service has risen 600 percent, Kim said. Last year alone, Cal Poly recorded 566 unique visits to the food pantry.
But not all CSU campuses have seen the same growth.
Of the students surveyed in the basic needs study, more than 51 percent indicated they were unaware of a food pantry on campus, or reported the service was not offered altogether.
Though more Cal Poly students are aware of the food pantry today than they were three years ago — about five to six students visit daily — Kim warns it is not a long-term solution for food insecurity.
Perhaps the most sustainable resource is CalFresh, the state program that administers the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which issues monthly electronic benefits that can be used to buy most foods at many markets and stores. Recipients are given an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that can be used like a debit card for food. EBT has been implemented in all 50 states since 2004, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
About 160 students have applied since September, said Aydin Nazmi, Cal Poly’s CalFresh program director, but not everyone gets approved. One of the biggest hurdles for full-time students is the requirement that they work a minimum of 20 hours per week. John fell into this category last winter.
Broadening student eligibility has been a priority across the 12 CSU campuses currently using CalFresh programs, Nazmi said.
The basic needs study suggests college credits should count toward the 20 hours per week exemption. However, no immediate solutions for expanding access were provided in the study, which says, “continued advocacy to increase college student eligibility exemptions are needed.”
“When you fill gaps in critical needs like food and hunger, people start to feel better, they start to do better physically, psychologically, socially,” Nazmi said. “We know that hunger is not just a pain in the stomach.”
‘It’s up to us’
The CSU system is home to 484,000 students and 50,000 faculty and staff members across 23 campuses.
Resources like the CSU Basic Needs Initiative, which conducted the study, will have a significant impact on how campuses address homelessness and food insecurity moving forward.
Knowing college students are at “a far higher risk” of food insecurity than the general U.S. population (12.3 percent of households in 2016, according to the study), Cal Poly appears to be taking a proactive approach.
“It’s up to us to do what we can, within the scope of our ability, to help students,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen gained a lifelong fan in John, who says he wouldn’t have climbed his way out of homelessness without her help.
He hopes sharing his story will raise awareness at Cal Poly and beyond.
“I know it’s something that people should hear, because I don’t want people to go through what I went through,” John said. “I want them to know there’s a place that you can go right away. It’s there.”