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Homelessness Affects 1 In 5 Students At L.A. Community Colleges, Says Survey

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On campus at Pierce College. (Photo courtesy of Pierce College/Facebook)
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About 1 in 5 students in the Los Angeles Community College District have faced homelessness in the past year, and about two-thirds of them can't afford to eat a balanced meal, according to a recent survey commissioned by the system’s board of trustees, reports the L.A. Times.

The survey, conducted during the fall of 2016 through the University of Wisconsin's HOPE Lab, paints a dire portrait of the daily struggles that are faced by L.A.'s community college students. Among those surveyed, 19% said that they'd experienced homelessness in the past 12 months, with 8% saying they'd been thrown out of home, 6% saying they'd stayed in an abandoned building, and 11% saying they'd had days where they didn't know where they'd be sleeping that night.

Of the survey respondents who said they did have housing, 23% said that they'd failed to pay their rent in full on at least one occasion in the last 12 months.

The survey also touched on the issue of "food insecurity," which the study describes as "the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner." Among survey participants, 65% said that, within the last 30 days, they couldn't afford to eat a balanced meal, 50% said they ate less than they should because of money constraints, and 42% said they'd had to ignore their hunger.

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The figures also showed a disparity between different demographics. Reports of homelessness and food insecurity were highest among African American and American Indian survey respondents, with 30% of African American and American Indian participants saying they'd experience homelessness in the last 12 months. In comparison, the same claim was made by 20% of white participants, 14% of Hispanic participants, and 13% of Southeast Asian participants.

The report was presented Thursday morning at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, with speakers Mike Eng and Scott Svonkin (both sit on the district's board) in attendance, as well as L.A. County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "When you have people going hungry for three days straight, you have a really serious problem," Eng told the Times in an earlier interview.

As the survey notes, there are public assistance programs (such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps), but student participation is still lacking, partly because of the myriad restrictions that the students may encounter. The survey's authors note that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program requires that undergraduates without children work at least twenty hours per week. Also, due to the shortage in subsidized housing, students eligible for housing assistance don't necessary get assigned to benefits. "Only 16 percent of housing insecure and homeless students in LACCD received housing assistance in the past 12 months and only 4 percent received utility assistance," said survey authors.

Shahera Hyatt, director at the California Homeless Youth Project, said that even if a student has a job, the cost of tuition and books could remain a big burden. "Many homeless students are working, but there is a substantial gap between what they make, and what they get in aid," Hyatt wrote in an email to LAist.

The situation at LACCD, while especially pronounced, reflects a wider trend of homelessness for students across the nation. In summer of 2016, a study initiated by the California State University showed that approximately 1-in-10 of the 460,000 students in the Cal State system had recently experienced homelessness. Researchers said that the situation was grossly overlooked, partly because the idea of a financially struggling student was seen as the norm. "The experience of student hunger has become normalized as the ordinary and expected starving student, thus minimizing the problem of students struggling to eat nutritious meals each day," said researchers.

"Regardless of geography we find students struggling with basic needs security. That being said, the percentage of LACCD students reporting homelessness was substantially higher than the percentage in the national sample," Jed Richardson, acting director at the HOPE Lab, told LAist in an email. In the main HOPE report that covers 70 educational institutions across 24 states, 14% of the 33,934 survey participants said they'd experienced homelessness in the past 12 month.

​Dr. Ryan M. Cornner, Vice Chancellor of Educational Programs and Institutional Effectiveness at LACCD, told LAist that the figures had surprised him, even though he knew that homelessness was widespread. "I think putting things in numbers helps highlight the issue. And seeing it at 19% was shocking," said Cornner. "The survey is something that has assisted us in generating the momentum needed to correct these situations."

Cornner said that the district will take a multi-faceted approach to finding a solution. "The most critical steps moving forward is that we need to work in collaboration," said Cornner, adding that the district will be working in conjunction with L.A. County—as noted at the Times, the County Board of Supervisors has recently designated homeless college students among the beneficiaries of funds from Measure H, which is expected to bring in $355 million annually over 10 years for homeless services. Cornner adds that the district has been making showers available to students who need them, and working to increase the visibility of on-campus "liaisons" who can connect in-need students with the proper resources.

Hyatt reiterated the need to highlight available resources on campus. "I think that academic institutions should try to engage this community to see what their needs are. Supportive programs on campuses should be marketed well so students know what they have access to (food pantry, child care, transportation assistance, etc.)," Hyatt told LAist.