San Jose community colleges oppose bill to provide safe parking for homeless students

Whether they are couch surfing, living in their car or out on the streets, nearly one in five community college students in California reported experiencing some form of homelessness over the course of a recent 12-month period.

That data — published by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice earlier this year —  didn’t come as a surprise to State Assemblymember Marc Berman who, a month earlier, had crafted a proposed bill with homeless community college students in mind.

If passed, Assembly Bill 302, would require all California community college districts to operate a safe parking program available to every homeless student in good standing and enrolled in at least six units.

The proposed bill is supported by a wide range of organizations including homeless advocates and groups associated with community colleges such as the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges and the California School Employees Association, AFL-CIO.

But it is notably opposed by more than 40 community colleges and districts throughout the state, including the San José-Evergreen Community College District.

Berman — whose Assembly district encompasses southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County — says he became aware of need for safe parking during a series of higher education hearings held throughout the state. Berman also serves as chair of a select committee on the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California and, during these hearings, he heard directly from the students about their concerns.

“Lots of students came to participate,” Berman told San José Spotlight in an interview Wednesday. “The biggest issue they raised in terms of their ability to access and complete higher education in California was homelessness and housing insecurity.”

An intern in Berman’s office told the legislator that her friend at Foothill College had been homeless for a couple years while attending classes on the Los Altos campus. She said that when her friend tried to park on campus overnight, he was shooed away by the campus security and his car was vandalized when he parked on residential streets.

This got the gears going for a safe parking program on the community college campuses.

“You need a parking lot, you need some type of security and you need access to restroom facilities,” Berman said. “All things community colleges have.”

But San José-Evergreen Community College District Chancellor Byron D. Breland voiced a slew of concerns with the bill, including its costs, and said it seemed short-sighted.

“I think we can do better than offering our students a parking lot,” said Breland.

Berman agrees that long-term planning is necessary, but also sees an immediate need to make a difference in the interim.

But the lawmaker has learned that launching a safe parking program on college campuses is a bit more complicated than it seems. For instance, restrooms might not be located near the parking lots and portable bathrooms would have to be used instead.

Existing security at the college campuses might not be enough, he added, leading to another extra expense.

But Berman said he’s written in a waiver eliminating some of the college’s liability after he heard that that was a concern.

“It’s complicated but the underlying reality is that too many students are sleeping in their cars and they’re doing it in alleyways and doing it in industrial parks,” Berman said. “We need to de-stigmatize the issue of student homelessness (and provide) safe places.”

Chancellor Breland says he’s aware of the challenges the students at the two community colleges in the district face.

“We often come across students that have shared stories with us,” he said. “(They’re) living in their car, homeless or temporarily couch surfing at a friend’s place to make ends meet.”

But the chancellor thinks homeless students would be better served through partnerships with the city, county and nonprofit organizations in Silicon Valley. He also wants to focus on preventing homelessness by keeping tuition costs low, providing adequate job training and continuing to expand a bachelor’s degree program through the California Community College districts — a program that has not yet come to his district.

Breland also worries that resources put toward a homeless parking program would divert available funding for things like financial aid. “We’re potentially faced with diverting those resources to security, sanitation and things that are going to be necessary if we are going to set up our parking lot for housing needs,” he said.

The bill is set up so colleges would be reimbursed for these expenses, but Berman says he’s working on putting better safeguards in place.

“A lot of community colleges are opposed. The bill is asking them more than we’ve ever had to ask them,” Berman said. “We all need to step up and do more.”

The bill is currently on the Senate Appropriations Suspense File. On Friday, the chair of the committee will announce which bills are released and which are held. If the bill is held, it’s considered dead. If the bill is released, it moves on to the Senate floor for a full vote. If passed, it will take effect on July 1, 2020 and sunset in 2022.

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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