Bill Wilson Center, San Jose State partner with Airbnb to house homeless students
Airbnb executive Chris Lehane at a press conference announcing a partnership with the Bill Wilson Center and San Jose State University to use Airbnb to help homeless students find temporary housing on November 13, 2019. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

In an effort to make a dent in housing Silicon Valley’s rapidly growing student homeless population, the Bill Wilson Center on Wednesday announced a new program in partnership with Airbnb to connect homeless San Jose State University students with temporary housing using the home sharing website’s technology.

Ron Ricci, board president at the Bill Wilson Center, said during a news conference the center will spend $250,000 from a state grant to help students at the university stay focused on their education instead of worrying about where they are going to sleep or how to pay rent. Ricci says the center will identify students in need, find them hosts using Airbnb, book those homes on the student’s behalf and pay the bill. But that’s not all.

Since Airbnb rentals are only a quick-fix for an ongoing problem, Ricci says the center will also provide case management services to ensure that students don’t wind up homeless again after they have to move on.

“This should not be a one-off event,” Ricci said. “We need to continue it and provide a connection between our students in need and the services that the Bill Wilson Center provides and other providers in the city and county have to offer those students. This is such an awesome opportunity to solve a huge problem.”

It is an innovative public-private partnership — perhaps the first of its kind — but members of the university’s Student Homeless Alliance say it won’t be enough to solve the problem without a commitment by SJSU to pursue and provide ongoing opportunities for student housing subsidies.

“We’re happy that a pilot program is starting,” said Diana Rendler, 20, a sociology student, San Jose native and member of the alliance. “But we want a commitment to an established program, not just pilot programs.”

Rendler says members of the Student Homeless Alliance are glad someone from the private sector has emerged to approach the problem with a fresh perspective and some outside of the box thinking. But Rendler says there is reason to worry that when the money dries up, the program will go away since neither the city nor the state are making promises to fund it beyond what the Bill Wilson Center has already committed.

San Jose State has come under fire this year for its response to a startling student homeless problem. According to a study published by the California State University Chancellor’s office last year, 13.2 percent of San Jose State students had experienced homelessness in the previous year.

And a recent San José Spotlight report revealed that just six students were housed in the last year, despite nearly 200 students seeking some sort of help with housing, food and other resources and a promise from university administrators to house every Spartan.

Patrick Day, vice president of Student Affairs at SJSU, said the program is an extension of a longtime partnership between the Bill Wilson Center and the university. But what Airbnb brings to the table is crucial to the future of that partnership as it relates to student homelessness, Day said.

“We appreciate the private sector getting involved in this issue,” Day said. “These are complex issues. They will not be solved with simple solutions. They’re going to be solved with partnerships where we think differently about how to mobilize our resources across all the work we do in our community so all members of our community can participate fully and don’t have to worry about the most basic needs in life.”

That was a recurring theme at the announcement — students need a safe place to live to be successful in their studies — but that challenge is insurmountable for many students without help, and there are no easy answers.

“We are collectively committed to ending the scourge of homelessness among our students,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo, who organized the news conference to announce the partnership. “Airbnb has stepped up in a big way, they are willing to use their platform to reach out to their members to enable host homes to be used for weeks or months that will allow students to have a safe place to live until we can find a permanent solution.”

It was not immediately clear Wednesday how many individual students might be housed under the new initiative or how many Airbnb hosts will step up to offer their homes for homeless students.

While the plan announced Wednesday is not a long-term solution, officials say it’s an important start — both in Silicon Valley and possibly across the nation.

“We have a student homelessness challenge in San Jose, but this is a national challenge,” said Airbnb’s Vice President for Policy and Communications Chris Lehane. “So, one of the things that could happen with this program is it could become a national model.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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