By Cristofer Garcia / The Southwestern College Sun
Georgia really wanted to earn a good grade in a class she loved. So she turned on the overhead light and spread her books across the dashboard of her car. It was cold, her mother was asleep and they were parked near the Chula Vista Marina. Georgia was homeless, but loved being a college student.
Georgia (a pseudonym) is a 19-year-old nursing student and one of the 32 percent of California college students experiencing housing insecurity. A recent study by the College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), a research lab under the Interwork Institute at San Diego State University, found that homeless students across California are silently facing a grim struggle to survive.
Southwestern College is no stranger to the problem.
Georgia recalled the brutal year she spent as a hungry homeless student with her family of six sleeping in two cars.
“It wasn’t easy for me,” she said. “Every morning I was waking up at six and going to the park and rinsing off in the sink water. It was the coldest time of the year.”
When she was 17 her family moved to Southern California and she started at SWC. They were living with a relative until problems arose and the family suddenly found itself with nowhere to go.
“We were just like, ‘This happened, what do we do now?’” she said.
Fearing custody loss of Georgia’s baby cousin, her mother reached out to government resources that helped the family find a safe parking zone in Chula Vista. They spent most of their time there before it was closed down. Georgia and her family started parking in a lot between J Street and Marina Parkway because “that’s where all the other homeless people were at,” she said. They found a place to live last October, but Georgia said the obstacles she faced as a homeless student were taxing.
“There were plenty of times that we didn’t eat,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh we don’t have (food) today, oh well. What are we going to do?’ I thought about begging for money.”
Georgia said she decided to study at SWC instead of Grossmont College on recommendation of her former high school counselor. SWC became an escape from her problems when she was homeless, she said.
“We had each other, but we were living in our (two) cars and it was really cold,” she said. “I always felt depressed, but when I came to school it was always like Southwestern had this environment. It’s so cheerful and I don’t know how to describe it. It was my getaway. I would stay here for long hours and I still do because I like being here.”
An English professor Georgia confided in was quick to point her to people who could help her.
“I wrote a paper in English class and my professor said to see her after class and then she asked me about (being homeless) and I told her,” she said. “She did her best to help me and continues to do so. It was my first year in college and I didn’t know anybody.”
Her situation was not unique.
ASO Senator-at-Large Roy Castillo is the Region X representative for the Student Senate of California Community Colleges. He said he has made it a priority to help students who face housing insecurity, including more than 30 this year.
“Seeing the devotion, motivation and determination in these students really encouraged me even more to be a student advocate for them,” he said.
One of the students he recently helped reminded him of the importance of actively reaching out, said Castillo.
“It was quite clear to me that this individual had said to her professor that she was homeless,” he said. “The reason why the student wasn’t able to feel comfortable to chime in and talk was because she hadn’t eaten for four days. Due to her situation, because she didn’t have any proper support, she wasn’t able to do the basic necessity of just showering. When she stated to her professor that it was her fourth day, I literally broke down in tears. This broke my heart due to the fact that no student should ever have to deal with such a hard situation by themselves.”
Dean of Student Services Dr. Malia Flood said the college is aware there is a problem with students facing housing and food insecurity. College officials are developing strategies to provide necessary resources she said.
“We’re on the right track,” she said. “I was looking at the recommendations for practice on the CCEAL report and I thought we’re (already) doing a lot of this, so it’s good. Of course there’s always more to do, but we’re doing a lot of this.”
Flood said students who seek help with housing or food insecurity often report anxiety and stress, which can affect their concentration and retention. Her findings are in line with the CCEAL report, which found that “students with food insecurity are significantly less likely to feel confident in their academic abilities (or) feel a sense of control in academic matters.”
Flood said it is hard to estimate the number of homeless students at SWC because the college does not ask that question when students are filling out applications. She said the school is mostly dependent on students self-reporting their situation when they seek out services.
California has the largest homeless population in the United States at 118,142, according to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. San Diego County was the county with the fourth largest homeless population in the country and the second largest homeless veteran population.
Flood said the campus food pantry opened earlier this semester is busy and is an indication of the challenges faced by many students.
“I think there’s a lot of need on campus,” she said. “(The food pantry) confirms that need.”
Flood said she is forming a student housing insecurity committee in the spring semester. It will include student representatives as well as Angel Salazar, the financial aid liaison for homeless students. Dean of Athletics Jim Spillers is a key member, Flood said, because he will help make shower facilities available to homeless students as required by Assembly Bill 1995.
Castillo said the legislation was a crucial step to create a more welcoming environment and that SWC has been out front on this issue.
“AB 1995 is creating a stepping stone to start recognizing that homeless students are individuals just like you and me,” he said. “I feel Southwestern College is going to make a revolutionary impact by helping those students that need the most help.”
Student feedback is also important, Castillo said.
“Many (students) don’t feel comfortable to speak up on that particular topic due to the fact that it’s so taboo,” he said. “We, as a modern society, have to address food shortages. There’s always room for that discussion.”
Georgia said societal stigmas related to homelessness blunt discussion.
“It can happen to anybody,” she said. “I know people stereotype all kinds of homeless people (as) drug addicts… it’s not like that. We had a five year old with us and she didn’t need to go through that, but we were all going through it and it’s not because we were drug addicts. It’s just financial issues and we couldn’t live with the person (we were living with) anymore.”
The nursing student said resources like the food pantry and AB 1955 would have been helpful to her, though she also said counselors should take a larger role in identifying the problem.
“Every student here has to go to the counselor at one point and time,” she said. “I feel like the job of the counselor is to ask them personal questions also… that’s their duty. I feel like counselors now are more focused on (finishing) your educational plan and get out. You have to seek them, they’re not seeking you. It’s kind of hard.”
She said her rough patch made her want to become a tutor at SWC. She now works at the Academic Success Center as a mentor.
“Every day you hear somebody at work, in the streets or school saying ‘Oh damn I didn’t do my homework.’ I look at them and wish I could tell them my story. I had to stay up late at night, I’d beg a lady from church to let me stay at her house for a little while just so I could do my homework. Then I hear people having all these excuses. Things happen, but people make an excuse for everything. I just want to tell people excuses are not valid. I just want to change the mentality of people.”