Every day, as president of the student body at Los Angeles City College, I work to help peers who are facing hunger and homelessness. As of now, my school and the Los Angeles Community College District are not laying off any student workers, but our situation is fluid and could resemble the situation that many other students are facing around the state and country. And little can prepare our campus for the devastating impacts of the coronavirus, including closing off vital on-campus services and laying off students from campus jobs. If we want students to survive this crisis, let alone succeed in college, we need colleges and their presidents to step up right now.
Before the coronavirus, students at Los Angeles City College were struggling. One in five students in our district experienced homelessness in the last year, and nearly two-thirds faced food insecurity. While I am constantly directing students to our on-campus resources — including a pop-up food pantry as well as opportunities for students to receive hot meals and financial support — these issues are also personal for me.
Last year, despite being a lifelong resident of Inglewood, I was on the brink of losing my housing because of skyrocketing rents in our neighborhood. I was effectively priced out of the place I have lived for the last five years and subsequently moved in with my father. Many students like me were already living paycheck to paycheck, but cutting off our jobs and the ability to access resources has left us stranded.
This reality is why for the last nine months I have been petitioning my college to offer emergency shelter for students who are experiencing homelessness. So many students are already sleeping in their cars, homeless shelters or even on the street. Why can’t we at least open the old gym to offer them a safe place for the night? Why can’t we provide safe overnight parking in our unused lots?
Before the campus closure, I was in the process of petitioning for increased public hours at our showers for homeless and housing-insecure students. Many of our most vulnerable student populations — including minority, low-income, LGBTQ, disabled and foster youth — intersect with housing insecurity. We must find ways to give our students a fighting chance and improve equity.
The coronavirus makes this even more urgent because students are more vulnerable economically than ever before. As a student in my 30s with over a decade of professional experience, I am not a “traditional” student. I work hard not only as student body president but also as an organizer with Rise, a student-led nonprofit working to make college free and to end student hunger and homelessness. I’m fortunate that my job will continue, unlike the jobs of so many who’ve been laid off recently. But I also know my economic reality is unstable.
Students need help students enrolling in benefits we might be eligible for, like Medicaid or CalFresh (California’s name for SNAP). If we have applied for finanial aid, colleges already have our data — and so they should be able to inform us whether we are likely to be eligible for these programs.
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice has outlined these recommendations in its latest report. Students need more than just a reminder that schools care. They also need help finding emergency shelter or housing if they have nowhere else to go — not blind referrals to organizations where they might get lost in the paperwork.
Students who don’t have access to reliable wifi or an Internet-enabled device need help as well. Starbucks, McDonald’s and other establishments that provide power outlets and wifi have been the lifeblood of many homeless students, but these venues are often now closed. The basic needs of our students must be met.
My student government is seeking to spend tens of thousands of dollars to support our students. Our biggest fear? The roadblocks we face in spending and disbursing these funds. We operate on a system of reimbursments and checks. But many business no longer accept checks, and few students can afford to wait a couple of weeks to receive a reimbursement.
According to federal data, only one in five students who begins at LACC will graduate. If we want that percentage to rise, we need colleges and their leaders to step up right now and help make this happen by matching the severity of this crisis with bold action. How well schools support and retain their students will be remembered — and will affect students’ futures for years to come.
This story about college students on the brink of homelessness was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Jemere Calhoun is president of the associated student government at Los Angeles City College (LACC) and the Los Angeles organizing manager for Rise. A psychology and African American studies dual major at LACC, he plans to transfer to the University of California at Santa Cruz.