High housing prices are forcing hundreds of Sacramento State students into homelessness

Graphic design major Elizabeth McGuire shops for a few grocery items at the campus food pantry at Sacramento State on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. McGuire is one of the estimated 3,600 homeless students at Sacramento State.
Graphic design major Elizabeth McGuire shops for a few grocery items at the campus food pantry at Sacramento State on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. McGuire is one of the estimated 3,600 homeless students at Sacramento State. The Sacramento Bee

A $200 a month rent increase pushed Sacramento State senior Elizabeth McGuire into homelessness on a recent Sunday afternoon.

“Now, here I am with no money, no place to live and no car,” she said. “I was really lucky because I have a good friend who said I could stay on her couch.”

McGuire, 45, is among the 3,600 or so students at Sacramento State that campus officials estimate are homeless, based on a California State University study. The report found that one in 10 students in the system are homeless and that one in five are food insecure, according to Sacramento State spokeswoman Dixie Reid.

This group includes recent high school graduates and older students like McGuire.

The university defines homelessness as someone who sleeps outside, in a car or otherwise doesn’t have a permanent home.

At Sacramento State, more than half of first-year students – 54 percent – qualified for Pell Grant aid for the lowest-income students, according to federal data from 2015-16.

McGuire is one of the lucky ones. Some homeless students have slept in tents or cars, according to President Robert S. Nelsen. Others sleep in the 24-hour study hall on campus. They shower, brush their teeth and dress at the university’s fitness center, The Well.

“They work hard to figure out how to piece things together,” said Beth Lesen, associate vice president for student affairs. “I’m in awe of our students and how they make things work. They are hardcore about their studies and their future, in an admirable and moving way.”

Students can receive up to $5,815 in Pell Grants depending on need. But that isn’t enough to pay the bills, said Danielle Munoz, a student affairs case manager. She estimates that even with loans, a student only has about $4,000 a semester after books and tuition. That leaves about $800 a month for rent, food, clothing and expenses each semester, she said.

That’s not much in Sacramento, where rent increases have been among the highest in the country in the last few years. Rent near the university starts at about $1,000 for a studio or one-bedroom apartment, while some landlords charge $569 or more per bed.

“We have had a sharp increase (in homelessness) we attribute to the housing affordability crisis,” Lesen said. “Rents have skyrocketed.”

Lesen said 250 homeless students asked school staff for help last semester. This semester, that number is on track to double.

In August, McGuire’s rent at an apartment about a mile from the school went from $850 a month for a one-bedroom to $1,050. She borrowed money and stopped paying other bills in an attempt to keep up. A little over a week ago, she packed up her belongings and left the apartment, after receiving a three-day pay or quit notice.

McGuire returned to school after her daughter went off to college, in an attempt to break a cycle of minimum-wage jobs. She expected long hours and sleepless nights, but didn’t expect to be homeless.

Because the grants and loans aren’t enough for most students to get by, about half take jobs, sometimes two or three, Munoz said.

Despite a rigorous schedule in the school’s graphic design program that often means 12-hour days on campus, McGuire works 15 hours a week as a seamstress for the university theater’s costume shop at minimum wage. The job is part of a financial aid package that totals about $7,000 a semester. After tuition and fees, she has about $3,000 left for food, clothing, books and shelter, she said.

On Thursday, McGuire took a break from her job to eat lunch at a campus food court. But instead of getting in line for sushi or gyros, McGuire took a plastic package of noodles out of her purse, added water from the drinking fountain and headed to a microwave in the corner of the dining hall.

“It’s hard. ... You walk in and everything smells so good, and I’m like, hmm, it would be nice to have some Chinese food right now,” she said.

Since leaving her apartment, McGuire has been sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor of a friend’s house in Citrus Heights. But on Friday she received good news: A dorm spot opened up in Sacramento State’s emergency housing program, and she moved in Sunday.

It will be a temporary reprieve. Come Dec. 19, when most students head home for the holidays, McGuire said she will head back to Citrus Heights and her friend’s floor because the dorms will close for winter break.

Sacramento State has responded to the growing needs of low-income students. In the past three years, the school has added a permanent food pantry, the emergency housing option and a pop-up free food program through the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services that offers fresh fruit and vegetables on campus several times a month.

The university also recently started its Host a Hornet program, in which alumni mentors have dinner at home or a restaurant with students in need. Alumni also have agreed to provide housing to students down on their luck. Outside agencies are lending needy students a hand as well.

“We can’t do it without the community,” Lesen said. “Every single day we are looking for every single gap in our safety net. We are not an island and we rely on the community the way they rely on us.”

Thursday, McGuire selected groceries off the shelves at the Sacramento State food pantry, tucked into Room 163 of Yosemite Hall. McGuire took her time, careful to pick items that didn’t need a can opener and that could be heated in a microwave or not at all. She selected Triscuits, canned tuna with a pull tab, dried apricots and a ready-to-heat meal.

The food pantry in just two years has outgrown its space, said Reuben Greenwald, director of student engagement and outreach. It will move to a larger space in the University Union once renovations are complete in the summer. The new space will allow the pantry to add refrigerated items like cheese and milk.

Students can visit the food pantry once a week and pick from an array of groceries and personal items. They are given 16 points that can purchase things like peanut butter – the most popular item – or snacks and shampoo, according to Greenwald.

Homelessness and hunger are problems students “have faced for many, many years, but it’s a much more acute problem here than it is in other places,” said Nelsen, the university’s president. “When over half of our students are coming from families that are making under $38,000 a year, and it’s costing them $23,000 (for school), we know there are people who can’t afford rent and can’t afford food, and so it’s very, very important that we take care of them.”

Nelsen said he briefly lived in his car one summer to save money for the $100 tuition at Brigham Young University in Utah in the early 1970s. During the day, he worked as a janitor at the university and at night he cooked outside and slept in his Rambler, which had seats that folded down. Every morning, he rolled his car down the hill without turning it on to save gas.

On Thursday, he pulled a brown envelope out of his desk drawer with a pristine W-2 form from 1970 that showed he earned $854.14 from his janitorial work and another $188 for painting numbers on curbs that year. He paid $34.33 in taxes.

Recently, Nelsen and his wife Jody started the Seth Robert Nelsen Emergency Fund, named after their late son. The Nelsens started the endowment with their own money, though they are not disclosing how much. Grants, based on need, are given to students who can show they are making progress on their degree. The school has two other emergency funds that each offer grants up to $1,500 to students in need.

Leslie Mundt, 54, a communications major graduating next month, used a $1,500 emergency grant from the alumni fund to pay her share for seven months of temporary housing through a county program.

Before that, she lived in her car outside a Walmart for six months, landing there after she was asked to leave a family member’s house. During that time, Mundt showered at The Well, sometimes wearing her clothes to wash them.

“I’d get there early,” she said. “I did my shower at The Well and I’d go to class and back to the Walmart parking lot.”

When the weather got too hot, Mundt would either stay as late as possible in the University Union or library or go to a cooling station in Granite Bay. “It was humiliating, but it was the best I could do,” she said.

She didn’t know her routine was similar to many other Sacramento State students. “I think people should know the extent of this,” she said Tuesday. “I haven’t found myself running into people in these circumstances, but we tend to hide. They don’t want anyone to know.”

After a total of eight years in school, Mundt looks forward to graduating and getting a job. She looks forward to moving into her own apartment, eating her own food and sleeping in her own bed.

“Once I graduate from school, I’ll have a whole wide world opened up to me,” she said.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert