This story is being co-published with The Imprint, a national news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice issues.
College students have long gone hungry and slept in their cars in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the nation. But many of the young people pursuing higher education this year face obstacles that have mounted with each month of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of students line up for food at San Jose State University’s Spartan Food Pantry, and a recent survey revealed 41.5% of respondents experienced housing insecurity.
Lana Gomez, a representative of the student-led advocacy organization, the Student Homeless Alliance, said throughout the pandemic students who sleep in their cars have continued to search for safe places to park at night where they can rest before class the next day.
“It’s just unimaginable how they can go through something like that and still be students,” Gomez said.
In this region of stark contrasts, the outsized wealth of tech magnates is ever on display—from gleaming Teslas on the highways to San Jose’s $1.4 million median home price. So too are the signs of deep poverty: sprawling homeless encampments and lines around the block for free meals at local rec centers.
Things here were rough for struggling students well before the pandemic struck.
Finding a place to sleep
Saline Chandler, 28, a former foster youth, said she spent much of her freshman year going hungry. She first became homeless on semester breaks, with no home to return to when the dorms shut down. One “brutal winter” she recalled sleeping out in the rain and catching pneumonia that took her weeks to recover from.
During the summer, she’d find beds in shelters or sneak into a school building. Other times, she’d crash on campus benches or in the nearby downtown Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, behind the rows of towering stacks of books.
“I would find a corner, snuggle up and sleep there,” she said.
Kenneth Mashinchi, spokesperson for the university, said SJSU Cares—which provides resources and services for students facing financial crisis—offers emergency aid and on- and off-campus housing for students experiencing housing insecurity, as well as food resources and overnight parking passes.
Mashinchi said SJSU is dedicated to finding students a place to stay, instead of sleeping in a car, “because it provides students a safe, secure and supportive option.”
Still, the needs are great. A “basic needs survey” released by the university’s SJSU Cares program in July found that in the beginning of the year, more than 11% of students reported being homeless for at least a day. Students said they couch-surfed or lived in cars. Others stayed temporarily in motels, hotels, shelters or outdoors.
Almost 30% said they had “limited or uncertain access to nutritious and safe foods,” because of limited funds, often after having exhausted financial aid and student loans. Those students skipped meals or ate less. More than one-quarter of those surveyed had been “food insecure” for at least three months.
An overwhelming 82% of students surveyed said COVID-19 had “somewhat or very negatively” impacted their mental health and overall well-being. They’d been laid-off and suffered reduced hours. Almost half said diminished income due to the pandemic threatened their housing. The report framed its findings by stating: “Our students are coping with the trauma of this pandemic on top of everyday life demands: balancing work, family, and other personal responsibilities on top of trying to be successful in their academics.”
Meeting basic needs
In January last year, university President Mary Papazian called the student homelessness crisis “one of the most urgent issues of our time,” as she launched housing programs totaling more than $3 million.
The funds, provided by the California State University Office of the Chancellor, are being spent on students’ basic needs, mental health services and limited emergency housing. There are also plans in the works to construct between 800 and 1,200 below-market-value apartments for faculty, staff and some students.
Papazian recently announced she will resign at year’s end, following revelations that the university mishandled reports from as far back as 2009 that student athletes had been sexually assaulted by their trainer.
Since it opened in March 2019, the campus pantry has also provided a critical service. According to SJSU Cares website, there were more than 18,880 SJSU student visits between March 2019 and January 2020. Requests to the program for assistance with food, housing and other basic needs rose from 189 during the 2018-19 school year to 624 assistance requests last year.
Fueled by long pent-up needs, three years ago a group of students marched to the office of the university president, demanding emergency beds and parking spots for students to sleep safely at night in their cars. SJSU is located just miles from the gleaming campuses of Google, Facebook and Apple, but university students like Chandler and other transition-age youth often live nearby, in dire poverty.
Chandler, for example, has worked at the DSW shoe store, a local LGBTQ youth center, an amusement park and as a nanny. But holding down as many as three jobs at once to pay rent left no time for studies—on top of her struggles to find a safe place to sleep at night. She ended up leaving the university, where she was studying sociology.
San Jose State University Sociology Professor Scott Myers-Lipton acknowledged such hardship, saying homeless students are hard-pressed to keep up with academics when they have nowhere to sleep and not enough to eat.
“If our students are struggling with those issues, their grades and the university’s graduation rates will suffer,” he said. “Students go into a tailspin when their basic needs aren’t met.”
The Student Homeless Alliance wants the university to offer students subsidized housing, grants for those facing homelessness, 10 garage parking spaces for students sleeping in cars and 12 permanent emergency beds on campus. Under continued pressure, the university agreed to provide the dozen beds, but they are currently only available for this semester and the university has so far struggled to connect those in need with the pilot program.
University spokesman Mashinchi said only one student has used a bed through the program, but SJSU Cares has continued to offer “comfortable and safe on- and off-campus housing for students experiencing housing insecurity,” resources that include full bathrooms, food resources and overnight parking passes. Members of the Student Homeless Alliance are concerned the program is not well advertised enough.
Student homelessness is not unique to urban students in San Jose. Fifteen miles north on Interstate 280, students at Foothill College in affluent Los Altos Hills have also struggled during the pandemic.
A survey of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District found more than 5% of 1,500 respondents were “housing insecure,” 2% lived in an unsafe environment and more than 3% were homeless. Simon Pennington, a spokesperson for Foothill College, said among the homeless students are young people who have suffered abuse and neglect at home, and those rejected because they came out to their parents as LGBTQ.
Matthew Bodo, 23, said after repeated fights with his father, he’d be kicked out of his house for weeks at a time. Following a particularly bad fight at age 18, his dad told him to pack his things and not return. Bodo said he grabbed some clothes and a toothbrush and began living in his car.
“All I could eat was food from a can or a package, and sometimes I even had difficulty affording that,” he said. “I would prioritize paying for classes and textbooks ahead of food.”
Now, five years later, Bodo—who transferred from Foothill College to UCLA—is studying to become a social worker.
Chandler plans to re-enroll at San Jose State next year.
Yet with vaccinated students back on campus now, SJSU Cares reports things will not simply fall back into pre-pandemic place with regard to employment, housing and nutrition. “For those who were in areas of deficit before, the gap may be larger now,” the authors report.
Pennington said more needs to be done for struggling students, but he remains in awe of their perseverance.
“Community college students are resilient,” he said. “They’re hard working and we just need to give them a bit more help. In such a wealthy area, we should be ashamed of ourselves that there are people living rough.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]