Asked To Leave Dorms, Housing Insecure Students Struggle To Stay Enrolled

Adam Sanchez, pictured here at Cal State LA, decided to drop out after losing his dorm room. He's joining the military. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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March 20 was a defining day for Adam Sanchez. He was two months away from finishing his first year at California State University Los Angeles, living the freshman life in the dorms.

That's the day he and the campus's 900 other dorm residents received an email telling them that the campus was shutting down and they had to leave for their own health and safety.

"Which I was really disappointed with, because they gave us three days to move out," Sanchez said.

He'd started his freshman year taking in the campus open mics and events that focused on African American and Latino culture. Even though he grew up less than two miles away in El Sereno, the campus felt a world away.


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"I think that living in the dorms helped me a lot in getting through the first semester," he said. "Because at home, I don't have access to the internet" — and therefore, no access to the online classes that have replaced in-person instruction during the coronavirus outbreak.

Even if he did, he couldn't imagine how he'd get any studying done in his home, a one-bedroom apartment he shared with five other family members.

For students like Sanchez, dorms are not just a place to sleep. They provide vital connections to safety nets they may not have off-campus — a place to study, access to technology, meals, health care, social supports, and much more.

Officials in the Cal State system and other public universities say they're offering as much support as they can to struggling students while being mindful of the health of the entire community. But for many there's still a wide gap.

Some students, like Sanchez, are falling through it.

He had thought about joining the Army after he earned his bachelors' degree in psychology — but now he's flipped that around. He enlisted several weeks ago and is scheduled to report to a recruiting office in downtown L.A. on May 17.

Adam looks at a letter detailing his assignment in the military. Adam leaves to start basic training in mid May. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

NO PLACE TO GO

When the university sent its March 20 email saying "students must move out by Monday, March 23," it said exceptions would be made for international students and foster youth. But Sanchez was neither.

"In the email they did not make it seem like they were going to let anyone stay at all unless it was your only form of housing," he said.

Students facing other hardships could fill out a form requesting to stay. Sanchez said he filled the request form out and wrote that he needed to stay because the dorm was his primary residence, everything he owned was there, and he needed internet access.

Sanchez said he never got a reply.

"The student who is the subject of your inquiry did not respond to our March 20 survey," said Cal State LA spokesman Robert Lopez by email. Sanchez said he did fill out the request.

No student in the dorms who had no other place to live was asked to leave, Lopez said, adding that Cal State LA "staff has worked tirelessly to meet that need. Our primary concern is the health and safety of our students."

Adam points out the Martin Luther King building on the Cal State Los Angeles campus where most of his classes were held. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The university reached out to Sanchez this week after LAist's inquiry to offer emergency housing but Sanchez said he needed that help on March 20. "Their help is really [much later] than when I asked for it," he said by text.

He's currently sharing a two-bedroom, one-bathroom rental apartment near campus with three other people. The Wi-Fi is spotty. He eats twice a day to save money, and he doesn't like that online classes are so impersonal.

He had requested a $500 emergency grant from Cal State LA but said he was turned down because he'd received a refund for his housing.

"With the way Cal State LA has been doing everything, it's just ruined my whole perspective on college," he said.

This week, he emailed his professors to tell them he's dropping out.

ONE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM, 23 APPROACHES

Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for Cal State University Chancellor Tim White, said each of the system's 23 campuses sets its own policies on how best to help students through the crisis.

Cal State East Bay in Hayward, for example, "strongly encouraged" students to vacate their dorms, but allowed students "who have no other housing options or other concerns, such as limited access to technology" to remain on a case-by-case basis.

Some campuses are providing their students free laptops, others are setting up Wi-Fi hot spots in their parking lots, while others are creating drive-through food pantries. As for housing insecure students, "If there's a student out there who was asked to leave [a dorm] who has no other options, whatever campus, they're going to do something to fix that issue," Uhlenkamp said.

The efforts during this pandemic, CSU said, are another way the university is trying to meet the goals of the university's Graduation Initiative 2025, which seeks to double four-year graduation rates in a decade.

"Everyone continues to be dedicated to that singular mission of helping students get to a degree," Uhlenkamp said.

But student activists say some administrators don't fully understand how much their students rely on the campus for their basic needs.

"The student isn't a traditional student, and we have to make sure that we're a caring community and we have to think about the intention behind our message," said student activist and Cal State Dominguez Hills graduate student Carolyn Tinoco.