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Homeless College Students Are Sleeping In Their Cars. What Should Schools Do About It?

Cypress College student Selina Jaimes Davila. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)
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More and more community college students are facing homelessness, and as state leaders learn more about the breadth of the problem, they face difficult decisions on how best to address it.

A recent study found that nearly 1 in 5 students in the state's community college system face housing insecurity. Many of them, like Cypress College student Selina Jaimes Davila, have found refuge in their cars.

"I knew... that it was a sacrifice that I had to make. If I wanted to be successful, if I wanted to graduate, if I wanted to transfer, if I wanted to get educated," she said.

Jaimes Davila, 24, has been homeless twice in the five and a half years since she first enrolled in ultrasound classes at the north Orange County community college. Her story helps to illustrate just how precarious the situation can be for students living on the edge.

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The first time she experienced homelessness, Jaimes Davila and her mother slept in her mother's minivan in the Lynwood area. It would take her a couple of hours on the bus to get to campus.

Then mother and daughter rented a room in a home, but Jaimes Davila left after one of the adults in the house made her feel unsafe. She moved out and began sleeping in her 2002 Honda -- her "Hondita," as she calls it.

"I used to sleep in the backseat -- and then as you could see, it's not that big," she said. "I was always like, in a little ball."

She didn't want to quit Cypress College. She'd started taking mechanical engineering classes and earned good grades. She thought she had found her career.

So for two and a half months, Jaimes Davila used campus bathrooms and showers during the day, stayed on campus until the library closed, and then drove around Cypress to find quiet residential streets where she could park overnight. Fear and early sunlight meant she only slept a maximum of four hours on most nights.

Jaimes Davila is currently renting a room across the street from where she used to park her car -- but that's only a temporary solution. She's transferring in the fall to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she'll be faced again with high housing costs -- and possibly returning to sleeping in her car.

College student Selina Jaimes Davila relied on her 2002 Honda when she became homeless. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

It's only in the last few months that California community college leaders have begun to find out how many of their students share experiences similar to Jaimes Davila.

A survey of California community colleges by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice released in March found that nearly one in five students systemwide reported being homeless or having trouble finding a place to live. The numbers were the first such hard data for the 114-campus college system, but there had long been evidence that low-income community college students often struggle with the costs of housing, transportation, and other expenses. Many end up dropping out.

Bay Area Assemblyman Marc Berman introduced a bill in January that would require community colleges to open their parking lots at night so their homeless students can sleep in their cars. Berman said students would be safer and would be offered help.

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The bill, AB 302, passed the Assembly's appropriations committee on Thursday and is expected to be taken up by the full Assembly by the end of this month.

"This bill is the next logical step in helping our homeless students," he said at a news conference last month.

Still, Berman said the bill is not a long-term fix to the problem of housing insecurity among the state's college students. In a written statement on Thursday, he said the state must also "work towards the long-term goal of building much more housing across the state," but in the short term, "we must do everything we can to alleviate the fear and suffering that these students are facing tonight."

As the bill has made its way through Sacramento, some college leaders criticized its potential costs. A state analysis estimated the bill would cost community colleges a total of between $11 million and $36 million.

"It's perceived as a Band-Aid approach to a very significant issue that requires a multi-pronged, comprehensive approach," said Larry Galizio, president of the Community College League of California. The group represents community college presidents and board members.

Galizio says Sacramento is already considering more financial aid for low-income students, and some colleges are already working with city leaders to help homeless students.

Some local jurisdictions have also expressed concerns over security. Cypress College President JoAnna Schilling had drafted her own plan, apart from AB 302, for overnight parking for homeless students, but she shelved it after hearing opposition from Cypress city council members and the city manager.

"There was concern that it would be non-students that would be trying to sleep in our parking lot," she said.

The campus of Cypress College. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Schilling's plan and the state bill would require colleges to verify that only currently enrolled students would be allowed access to the lots during overnight hours and that there's adequate security. After hearing the objections from city leaders, she now says she's working with them on other ways to help students experiencing homelessness. Cypress Mayor Stacy Berry and the city manager, Peter Grant, did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Jaimes Davila is still dealing with housing insecurity. While she's found a room for now, she knows that housing costs in San Luis Obispo will be high when she transfers to Cal Poly in the fall. She's looking at loans and other ways to make sure she has enough money so she won't have to go back to sleeping in her car.

For students in similar situations, she said, having a secure overnight spot in a campus parking lot would make a tremendous difference.

"I would have gotten more hours of sleep" if that had been an option at Cypress. "I would have felt safer. I wouldn't have had to like... sneak around."

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