New bill would let homeless Cuesta College students sleep in their cars on campus

Here’s how SLO County counts its homeless population

San Luis Obispo County's Homeless Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey took place Jan. 30, 2017, to calculate the area's homeless population. Volunteers walked and drove around the county, recording any homeless individuals they saw.
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San Luis Obispo County's Homeless Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey took place Jan. 30, 2017, to calculate the area's homeless population. Volunteers walked and drove around the county, recording any homeless individuals they saw.

California’s housing crisis has left hundreds of thousands of community college students either homeless or facing the threat of being homeless.

A new California State Assembly bill offers a potential remedy — letting students sleep in their vehicles in campus parking lots and structures.

Assembly Bill 302, sponsored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, would require the California Community College system to make their college parking system accessible overnight to any enrolled student in good standing. State law already requires that community colleges provide homeless students with access to shower facilities on campus.

Under Cuesta’s current ordinance, overnight parking is not allowed on campus. While Cuesta doesn’t have immediate statistics, there have been a handful of reports of students sleeping in cars over the past couple years, according to Cuesta College officials.

But the issue is clearly a problem statewide, according to Berman.

“Over the last two years, I’ve heard from too many students that they don’t have stable housing and often end up sleeping in their cars. Unfortunately, this is all too common throughout California, with one in four community college students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness,” Berman said in a statement Wednesday.

While programs such as the California College Promise help cover tuition, that’s not the biggest expense community college students face.

Housing takes up 43 percent of a student’s budget, according to a report from the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Research and Floor Analysis released last summer.

A line of cars on Prado Road, where many homeless gathered to live and sleep in their vehicles. A California bill proposes allowing community college students to sleep in cars on campus.

Cuesta’s office of Student Services created a survey titled “Your Home, Your Voice,” which was launched last week, according to campus officials.

“The survey will close at the end of this week and has received over 800 responses so far,” the college said in an emailed statement to The Tribune. “The goal is to have the most current data regarding housing and Cuesta College students.”

Cuesta College also has set up a meeting with 40 Prado (and is in the process of setting up a meeting with ECHO in Atascadero) to discuss the possibility of setting up a safe parking priority system for Cuesta College students.

The college also connects students in need with a number of resources, such as referrals to Echo and 40 Prado, Cougar Food Pantry (providing food to hungry students), showers on campus, and counseling support.

A homeless student task force was created by Student Services in the fall to address growing needs.

“Cuesta College will closely monitor whether or not the bill is signed into law,” the college said in its email. “Should it pass, there are potential safety and other logistical issues that would need to be addressed including overnight patrol of parking lots and the use of campus facilities overnight.”

While federal Pell grants can be used for non-tuition expenses, they “cover less than a third of average non-tuition costs, leaving a sizable gap that these students must fill,” that report found.

The California Community College system is the largest, and most diffuse, of all the state higher education systems. It encompasses more than 2.1 million students across 114 campuses around the state.

While there hasn’t been a formal statewide survey of community college student homelessness, a number of smaller studies have included community college districts. Two districts — the Los Angeles Community College District and the Peralta Community College District in northern Alameda County — have conducted their own surveys.

The Los Angeles Community College District had nearly a quarter of a million students enrolled in the 2016-17 academic year; nearly one in five students — around 50,000 people — was homeless and more than half were listed as “housing insecure,” defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as experiencing “high housing costs in proportion to income, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, overcrowding or homelessness.”

In the Peralta Community College District, that percentage was even higher; 84 percent of enrolled community college students, nearly 42,000 students in total, were experiencing either homelessness or housing insecurity. The speaker’s report quoted an anonymous, 42-year-old part-time community college student who spoke of her struggle.

“I work really hard to keep up with the rest of my class, because I have lost my place three times due to my inability to pay because of my lack of financial aid,” she said. “I really don’t know what to do to prove I want and deserve this other than continue to show up. And I pray I don’t get killed in the park while I sleep.”

Berman’s office is working with the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and the Community League of California to address concerns such as student safety as they sleep overnight on campus. The bill gives community college governing boards leeway to determine the best way to implement this requirement.

“We are delighted to be working with Assemblymember Berman’s office to fine tune this bill to address local barriers and ultimately provide safer options for students facing housing insecurity,” said Lizette Navarette, vice president of the Community College League of California.

A spokeswoman for the Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley’s office said that the chancellor has not taken a position on the bill.

“Our system is working to help students with basic needs such as food and housing insecurity and also working on a proposal to ensure that more need-based financial aid through the Cal Grant system is available to community college students,” chancellor’s office spokeswoman Christina Jimenez said.

Berman’s office isn’t calling AB 302 a solution to the housing crisis, but the lawmaker argues it’s a good next step to addressing the crisis of student homelessness.

“The long-term solution is to build more housing, but while we work to make that a reality, AB 302 is a step that we can take now to ensure that homeless students have a safe place to sleep at night,” Berman said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.