On a weekday evening when they could have been studying for midterms, a group of students at UC Berkeley gathered instead around a conference table to discuss a campus issue of growing concern – homelessness.
“My idea when I first started was that we wouldn’t have to exist for long,” said Taylor Harvey, a co-founder of the newly formed Homeless Student Union. “I thought we’d be self-destructing, that the campus would have a resource.”
Less than a semester into the new school year, the group is still going, trying to find housing for individual students and working to get data about how many others at one of the nation’s most sought-after public universities need help.
The university, so far, doesn’t have a reliable estimate, according to Ruben Canedo, research and mobilization coordinator at the Educational Opportunity Program. The numbers are hard to gather partly because students are reluctant to admit they’re homeless, he says, but also because there’s no clear language on surveys that defines their situations – everything from living in unsafe or overcrowded conditions to sleeping in cars, couch surfing, commuting from far away or, at the end of the spectrum, being homeless.
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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid reported there were 58,000 homeless college students last year. But colleges aren’t required to collect their own statistics.
That has not stopped students on some campuses from offering resources. UCLA students this year opened the Bruin Shelter for homeless students in Los Angeles, one of the first of its kind in the country. The Homeless Student Union aims to help find out what students need, raise awareness and find resources.
Housing insecurity is a rising concern at public universities around the country, says Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs at UC Berkeley. But it’s of particular concern at campuses like Berkeley, where housing expenses are disproportionately high.
Students, who now pay $13,510 in tuition and fees, already are protesting a proposed hike. Students who live on campus pay close to $15,000 for room and board. If they live off campus, where the average housing cost is more than 200 percent above what it is nationally, they will pay an estimated $12,050.
Market-rate rents in Berkeley are at all-time highs, adding to what the city’s Rent Stabilization Board deems an “affordable housing crisis.” The city is home not only to tens of thousands of the university’s students, faculty and staff, but also to residents who came from San Francisco to escape that city’s skyrocketing prices.
The median market-rate rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,700, an increase of $900 from 2010. But even that doesn’t describe the scope of what students face, said Jay Kelekian, executive director of the rent board. Students are doubling, tripling and quadrupling up in bedrooms in order to afford rents that bump up when a unit is vacated, he says. The board recently has seen cases where a seven-bedroom home rented for more than $31,000 a month and a two-bedroom apartment went up 275 percent in three years, to $7,795.
“Coming from Sacramento, the cost of Berkeley is mind-blowing,” said Ty Perez, who found himself homeless after his apartment arrangement fell apart this fall. “As a transfer you have to compete with wealthier students who can afford more.”
With scholarship money already devoted to tuition and to rent that he could not get back, he’d run out of options.
He was sleeping on friends’ couches and floors until he made his way to a meeting of the Homeless Student Union, where Harvey was able to refer him to a local resident who had offered up a free room in her home.
“If I hadn’t gotten help, I would have had to drop out,” said Perez, who’d fallen behind in class work because he was so worried about housing.
He didn’t have to explain that to Harvey. As a teenager, she was homeless for several years after her mother lost her job and they were evicted. They stayed in shelters and lived in their car before Harvey moved into a classmate’s home her senior year of high school.
She lived on campus the first two years at UC Berkeley, but now, as a junior, works more than 20 hours a week to pay for expenses not covered by grants. Nine percent of students said in a campus survey that they worked 35 hours or more every week to help pay for school. Close to 60 percent said they were buying fewer books or getting them used or online.
Almost 20 percent of UC students systemwide reported sometimes going hungry, in a recent survey by the UC Global Food Initiative. A quarter said they had to choose between paying for food or housing and school expenses.
“When students come to Cal they expect they will be taken care of,” said Michelle Hong, program coordinator at UC Berkeley for CalFresh, a federally funded, state-maintained food subsidy program. “But what they get is a third of what they need.”
Those who run out of food can get emergency loans, donated dorm meal credits, or visit the student-run Food Pantry twice a month and take up to five items. Many look for free food events on campus and downtown.
Canedo, who is working with the Homeless Student Union to survey student needs, says he knows anecdotally that more students are struggling.
Part of the problem, Le Grande said, is that federal grants don’t take into account the high cost of living in cities like Berkeley. And the university – which admitted 750 more in-state freshmen this year – is limited in what it can do. Campus housing can take years to build.
“We have a short-term problem, and we don’t know what the solutions are,” Le Grand said. “We are at the mercy of the community.”
Students often arrive on campus having underestimated how much money they’ll need, Canedo says. Many also don’t have much knowledge of financial matters and budgeting.
The university offers information sessions, including one through the business school on personal finance, but Canedo wants to extend help to younger students. He’s working on a pilot program to coach middle school students on what they will need in order to attend college.
“For some students it’s not having the knowledge about how to survive,” said Harvey, who’s become a kind of “professional bureaucracy navigator” as she works with the Homeless Students Union, which has gotten donations of cash, meal cards and a few offers of free housing.
“I’m here to educate myself and grow outside of class,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot, and it’s more rewarding than any class would be.”
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.