San Jose State University sophomore Bahati Burgess calls an old classroom at Grace Baptist Church his home.
After being priced out of the dorms last year, the 19-year-old Oakland native became one of thousands of San Jose students experiencing homelessness while trying to earn their degrees.
The downtown university has an alarmingly high number of homeless students and for months students have demanded university administrators take action. Now they’re taking their fight to Sacramento, meeting with leading Silicon Valley lawmakers to explore legislation and a possible ballot measure to increase funding to combat the growing homeless student population.
“We had a meeting with Senator Jim Beall and we’re looking at creating a new bill for more funding,” said Student Homeless Alliance President Mayra Bernabe. “We’re not going to stop here. We hope the school meets our demands and is more transparent, but in the case that does not happen, we will be seeking community support and doing as much as we can to have those resources.”
Thanks to Grace Baptist Church, Burgess now shares a rent-free room with four other students instead of couch surfing to get by.
“I was either staying at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, with friends around the school or going back to Oakland, which was a three-hour ride on bus and BART,” Burgess said of his previous situation. “It was one of those three options and if I chose to go back home, I was sacrificing all of my study hours.”
In Jan. 2018, the California State University Chancellor’s office released a study on students’ basic needs. The report found that in the 2016-2017 school year, 13.2 percent of San Jose State students experienced homelessness in the last 12 months – over two points higher than the CSU system average of 10.9 percent.
In the year since the report was released, Burgess and over 4,300 other San Jose State students have been living in churches, the library and out of their cars. Some say the university has failed to address the problem and now San Jose State’s Student Homeless Alliance is challenging President Mary Papazian to take action.
Founded in the 1990’s, the Student Homeless Alliance was revived last year as part of a social action class at the university. Its 15 active members are working to address homelessness in the city and on campus.
Students from the organization last year met with vice presidents at the university. They said university officials made broken promises that included a safe space parking program in the 7th Street garage.
In December, they requested Papazian distribute food and housing resources to all students, dedicate 10 to 15 safe parking spaces in the 7th Street garage for students sleeping in their cars and provide 12 beds for emergency housing for up to 60 days.
“If we have students who are not having our basic needs met, I’m not sure the type of future we will have,” Bernabe said. “It’s unacceptable that we have over 4,000 students who have experienced homelessness in the last year (especially) living where we are in Silicon Valley.”
The university released a statement in late November saying that San Jose State is “proactively addressing issues of homelessness and food insecurity through SJSU Cares.”
One program offers temporary emergency housing on campus, the university said. But the university only has two beds in the dorms for homeless students for up to two weeks – a fact that university leaders did not mention.
Scott Myers-Lipton, a sociology professor and faculty advisor for the Student Homeless Alliance, said one of his students seeking shelter was kicked out after two weeks, despite his unceasing pleas to let the student stay.
After that, both beds remained vacant.
There seems to be a dichotomy between the university’s actions and the words of San Jose State administrators, Bernabe said.
During a recent meeting to discuss the student demands with SJSU Vice President Patrick Day, Bernabe said Day told her the university could accommodate unhoused students for “two weeks or a month or however long.” But Myers-Lipton insists his student was kicked out after two weeks.
Myers-Lipton said students who worry about their next meal or where they’ll sleep at night struggle to keep up their grades and often fail classes.
“I have students who say they have eight or nine (people) in a two-bedroom because they can afford $300, but they can’t afford $1,300,” Myers-Lipton said. “Students are desperate and some of the students fall through the cracks and end up on the streets, or in their cars or in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.”
Myers-Lipton said two or three students every semester tell him that they’re struggling to put a roof over their heads as California’s housing crisis intensifies. And those, he said, are the ones who come forward.
San Jose State senior Dalia Angel said she was working 30 hours a week on top of her full-time class schedule when she became homeless last September.
As one of seven children from a family living in the East Bay, Angel had to resort to sleeping in her car without so much as a blanket to keep her warm. That year, Angel’s grades on her midterms took a hit.
“This can happen to anyone,” she said. “One day you will have a house and shelter and one day you won’t. I was sleeping in my car, but other students don’t have the same blessings. They’re sleeping in tents, the park and the library.”
In December, San Jose Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco committed herself to solving the student homeless situation at a news conference held by the Student Homeless Alliance.
“While homelessness is challenging, I don’t believe that it is an impossible feat to resolve, especially for our students,” Carrasco said. “To have even one student who is dealing with homelessness while completing higher education is completely unacceptable.”
Carrasco offered to work with the San Jose State administration in combating the problem with best practices that she’s learned from her time on the council.
Bernabe said she’s glad that administrators are finally listening.
Shortly after the Student Homeless Alliance’s December press conference, the university sent an email providing students with resources to help with food and housing insecurity.
Contact Grace Hase at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @grace_hase on Twitter.
Photo caption: San Jose Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco has vowed to help end student homelessness at San Jose State University, which is higher than the CSU average (photo by Grace Hase)