This op-ed was originally published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
A 2018 California State University survey of more than 24,000 students found that nearly one in 10 had experienced homelessness, and more than 40 percent had struggled with food insecurity. Across the country, 17 percent of students have been homeless in the past year and nearly half have experienced housing insecurity. The pandemic has devastated the incomes of college students leading 7 in 10 to lose some or all of their wages, while nearly half have had their living arrangements affected.
Consider what one San Diego State University student said in that 2018 study. The 33-year-old told researchers at the time that he was homeless for three weeks to a month: “I hotel-hopped and just stayed at any cheap motel I could find while I saved up.”
Before the pandemic, he was a full-time student studying public health and struggling to make ends meet as the few dollars he earned at a job forced him to rely on his campus food pantry. When he was laid off, homelessness soon followed — a story that is, unfortunately, far too common.
A 22-year-old CSU student who was studying art education told researchers for that 2018 study that she arrived on the Long Beach campus without a lot of money or any grants: “So basically what I used to eat three days out of the week was Minute Maid and chips, and that’d be it.”
Now the pandemic has upended the lives of even more students.
In the University of California system, schools pivoted to help students during the pandemic but initial federal CARES Act funding ran out quickly due to high demand. The Hub Basic Needs Center at UC San Diego continued to assist students virtually and connected students to resources like laptop rentals, internet access, emergency financial aid and even housing, a much-needed respite that provided many UC San Diego students with a roof over their heads for up to 30 days. This summer, The Hub has even launched a free weekly grocery shuttle service to La Jolla Village Square and Convoy Street for both graduate and undergraduate students, increasing their access to fresh and healthy food.
Addressing these challenges requires better policies and ongoing investments to support the full cost of attending college. In California, the Hunger-Free Campus Act in 2017 and state investments in recent years have helped support student basic needs, but few of the investments have been made permanent.
There was help in federal emergency student aid funds included in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, but that too was a one-time investment, leaving post-secondary institutions unsure if funding will be renewed or if they will be able to help students next semester — let alone next year.
Despite this uncertainty, all 23 CSU campuses have developed food-delivery programs and services that link students to resources such as grants and case management. While these programs are critical, they fall short of addressing more serious issues, including chronic housing instability and homelessness.
To address these complex challenges, CSU and California Community Colleges are breaking new ground with the College-Focused Rapid Rehousing program to get more students quickly into housing as part of their commitment to addressing equity gaps for marginalized groups; however, funding is not ongoing and does not support important evaluation measures to ensure that the program works as intended. Long-term investments are still needed to ensure that any progress can be maintained and expanded.
Fortunately, California’s recently enacted budget makes huge strides in support of student basic needs. All three systems of higher education in California will receive millions in one-time dollars for emergency financial aid ($15 million for UC, $30 million for CSU, $150 million for CCC).
Even more exciting are the ongoing dollars that will support student mental health ($15 million for UC, $15 million for CSU and $30 million for CCC) and general student basic needs support at the CSUs and CCCs ($15 million for CSU and $30 million for CCC). The CCC dollars, as an example, will go toward supporting student basic needs centers and the hiring of student basic needs coordinators on each CCC campus.
This budget represents a breakthrough in the fight to help students meet their basic needs. After years of advocacy, our elected leaders have acted upon the knowledge that seeing students as humans first and making sure they can subsist and study at the same time is both economically compelling and morally correct.
We commend their efforts because they get us closer to giving all California college students a chance to build a better life.
Crutchfield is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach. Michelson, M.D., is founder and co-chair of the Michelson 20MM Foundation. Both live in Los Angeles.