Community college offers parking spots to unhoused students

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Long Beach City College administrators consider a plan to allow unhoused students to sleep in their cars in a secure parking garage on campus a short-term but important strategy to keep students safe while helping them find more stable housing.

Experts who study food and housing insecurity among college students are skeptical about the effectiveness of such a plan, however. They question the wisdom of putting resources into a program with such a limited scope and that literally leaves houseless students out in the cold.

“This is about us being responsive during the pandemic and meeting a real, live student need,” said Mike Muñoz, interim superintendent-president of the Long Beach City College District.

“I don’t think that the solution is allowing students to sleep in a car,” said Paula Umaña, director of institutional transformation at Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which researches food and housing insecurity among college students.

Under the parking plan, which is part of a pilot program launched in October, 15 unhoused students who normally sleep in their cars will be permitted to park overnight at a campus parking garage monitored by security. College leaders said this will prevent some students from having to park overnight on streets where they are more vulnerable to theft and violence and risk having police called on them. Parking on campus will also provide the students free access to Wi-Fi, eliminating the connectivity problems they often encounter off campus and allowing them to more easily complete class assignments.

The objective is for students without other options to stay in the parking garage until the college helps them find transitional housing, Muñoz said.

“We’re in this with our students, and we’re going to do everything we can to support them, to transition them out of this situation and connect them with more stable housing, and that’s ultimately our goal,” he said.

Umaña doesn’t doubt that Long Beach City College will provide students with additional supports, but she said it’s critical for the college to secure housing for students, especially as winter approaches.

“What we need to focus on is what other supports students are going to get,” she said. “That’s where we want to dig into, because just opening a parking lot so students sleep there safe and sound would be very superficial. The solution is supporting students, informing students, empowering students, equipping students and strengthening their safety nets so these moments sleeping in a car don’t become a way of living.”

Muñoz noted that the college already provides students with vouchers for local motels, case management services and other emergency aid, including for housing, paid with federal COVID-19 relief funds. As of Sept. 30, ​Long Beach City College had received $7,331,529 in federal funds designated for student emergency aid and had distributed $7,282,029 to 9,755 students.

“What we recognize is it’s a multipronged approach,” he said. “The pandemic has exacerbated the problem.”

Still, he and other Long Beach administrators know the parking plan only scratches the surface of the student homelessness problem. Almost 70 students reported living in their cars in applications for emergency aid introduced in spring 2020. Approximately 5 percent of the student body—about 1,000 students—reported that they have been without permanent or stable housing at some point in the last five months in a survey students took when enrolling for classes this fall.

The idea for the pilot program came largely from a State Assembly bill that died in the Senate last year. The bill would have required community colleges across the state to open their parking lots to unhoused students. Long Beach City College leaders nonetheless embraced the idea after the pandemic was declared and students started having financial problems and applying for emergency aid from the college.

The parking program allows single students without partners or children to sleep in the garage from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. with access to restrooms during the night and campus showers for two hours in the morning. The college consulted with Safe Parking LA, a nonprofit that organizes safe parking programs, and hired a security firm to oversee the parking lot from Oct. 25 through June 2022, the duration of the pilot program. The college spent $200,000 on the program from its general fund.

The students, identified by the college’s Basic Needs Office via their emergency aid applications, will receive individual case management services and will be connected with partner organizations, such as Jovenese and Economic Roundtable, which provide students with transitional housing.

Although the initiative by Long Beach City College has drawn media attention, along with some scrutiny and criticism, the college is far from being the only higher ed institution attempting to help its unhoused students. The pandemic led to rampant housing instability and homelessness among college students across the country. A fall 2020 survey of more than 195,000 students, released by the Hope Center in March 2021, found that half of respondents at community colleges and two in five university students experienced housing insecurity that year. Meanwhile, 14 percent of survey respondents reported experiencing homelessness.

Higher education leaders have responded by ramping up efforts to house students on campus or helping them find housing off campus. Some community colleges are even planning to build student housing on their campuses.

Long Beach City College leaders recently applied for $75 million from the California Community Colleges system’s chancellor’s office to build affordable student housing, which would include about 400 new beds for students. Some universities whose residence halls are overcrowded with students who were eager to return to campus after the universities shut down last year during the pandemic have contracted with local hotels to house students or offered students financial incentives to live off campus.

In the interim, Umaña is concerned that the parking program at Long Beach may send the wrong message to students about their status quo—that college leaders think it’s OK for students to be sleeping in their vehicles. She said it should be made clear to students that the parking program is part of a larger “series of interventions” to get them back on their feet and in secure housing.

“Students shouldn’t hear this message that you can sleep in a car,” she said. “The message should be ‘let’s figure out something that is a long-term solution.’”

Muñoz said the pilot isn’t a permanent fix and he’s “not trying to oversell” the potential impact it will have on improving the lives of unhoused students. He stressed that while the program is “uncharted territory” for the institution, it’s just a starting point.

“We’re living in the here and now with our students,” he said. “And as much as we don’t want our students to live in their cars, there are students … who are having to do this every night. Most of them are probably not feeling safe. I’m being very declarative. This isn’t intended to be a long-term solution.”

Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton College, said while he respects the idea of a safe parking program and might consider doing the same in the future, he wouldn’t want to divert resources from rental assistance programs or other immediate aid programs, which he believes will yield more long-term and effective results.

“I support these new initiatives … but sleeping in a car, for me, it’s about how do you transition them from a car into stable housing?” he said.

A 2019 campus survey conducted by the Hope Center found that about 63 percent of Compton College’s students experienced housing insecurity, and 23 percent had experienced homelessness that year. The college launched the Shallow Subsidy Housing Assistance Program in May 2020 in response to the pandemic, which provides housing-insecure students $300 monthly to help them pay rent. The program is operated in partnership with the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, a Los Angeles organization focused on providing affordable housing and workforce development opportunities for low-income residents.

Curry said rental assistance programs can have limited results if they’re overly bureaucratic. He finds that many students who need the service don’t benefit because they’re discouraged by a “cumbersome” application process that requires them to prove “how poor you are.” The college submitted a $77.2 million proposal to the state in October to build a four-story building with 250 beds for low-income students, which he believes to be the best long-term solution for student homelessness on his campus.

“For me, I had to focus our attention on building dorms,” he said.

Patricia Lopez, a Long Beach City College student who was homeless for about five months, said the parking program is a “magnificent” start even if it’s a “work in progress” and serves a limited number of students for now.

Before she found transitional housing through the college, Lopez and her 12-year-old daughter slept in her car or stayed in an RV in a friend’s backyard in Compton. People with mental health problems or drug users were often out on the streets at night, and she constantly worried about people breaking into her car. She had to use bathrooms at friends’ homes or use supermarket bathrooms to wash up. Keeping up with her schoolwork became “really stressful” and she strongly considered giving up on trying to earn an associate degree.

“It makes me shake just thinking about it,” she said. “It was a really horrible time.”

Lopez believes the pilot program will ultimately help students.

“I’d rather have them in a safe place than have to be enduring anything that you see on the streets, because the streets is not a place to be,” she said.

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