By Mauricio La Plante
For a month student Joseph Ochoa couch surfed with a friend in San Diego before moving into an apartment with his own bed while attending San Diego State University.
“I didn’t have a place to stay because my lease didn’t start up yet, but I had to be down there for orientation, so I couch surfed with a good friend of mine, and right after that I went into an apartment with one of my friend’s older brother,” Ochoa said. “we split a two bed, two bath apartment, so it was nice, a little more bang for my buck, but I had nowhere else to live.”
When transferring—especially outside of the local area around Santa Clarita—students may face a tough transition from the cheapened convenience of COC to the financial hardships of independent living, but for many that struggle starts early.
Homelessness is “a growing trend in community colleges,” said Sylvie Faust, a COC case manager, who over the past nine months has served a total of 42 homeless students at College of the Canyons Faust’s findings serve only as a backdrop for the current numbers of homeless Cal State University students.
A recent article from the Los Angeles Times showed that 1 in 10 of 460,000 CSU students are homeless. This statistic, combined with the high unemployment rates of millennials, shows how expensive housing and limited job opportunities, challenges both homeless and sheltered students, to transition with their education.
For many, College of the Canyons, serves as a stepping stone to larger and more prestigious four-year universities and provides several practical and occupational training programs alongside the transfer pathway. But for those struggling to pay for food and shelter, their financial struggles can become a burden to their education.
“The cost of housing here in Santa Clarita is way too expensive for students; the average room rental is about $900,” Faust said. “Usually [students] go to school full time, and maybe they’d have a little job here and there making $200 or $300 a month, and that’s not even covering food and housing.”
Faust says budgeting is key. “The universities are pretty well equipped, with having lists of rentals and properties that the university owns and that they rent out to students.”
But students still face many financial obstacles with that transition. “It was very costly [to live away from home],” says SDSU graduate Joseph Ochoa, who transferred there from COC. “I brainstormed before I went. I looked into how much cleaning costs were … I was prepared.”
When encountering this responsibility, many students become more resourceful after leaving home for university. “It was a good way to [begin] your way of independence, you know, living by yourself, doing everything by yourself,” says Christian Cucota a former Northern Arizona University student who returned home to attend COC due to health reasons. “Having that, then coming home, [it’s] a definite adjustment [because] you’re alone for the first, and here you’re back with family.”
“Here, I’m always spending money on concerts, and games, and a bunch of other stuff, and over there I was very conservative, I only spent money on stuff that I needed, and it was because NAU was very expensive.”
But some students still struggle at COC to stay financially stable, after trying to pay for necessities such as food and shelter. Faust recorded that she provided 42 students, 58 with medical services, and 68 with health insurance, but explains that the number of homeless students attending COC could be anywhere.
“As far as COC, I don’t have a number for you that I can just throw out. The Los Angeles Family housing has done a homeless count throughout Santa Clarita,” Faust said, but explains they did not include any categories for college students.
“They should have included the college students, but they didn’t have enough volunteers to do it. And it’s a kind of difficult thing to do, because everyone expects a homeless person to be living outside…we don’t know, we have to ask, and we can’t just ask. I don’t ask people, ‘Hey are you homeless?’”
With limited hard data and student involvement, it is a struggle for community colleges to adapt new policies. “The UC system has a lot of resources, but it’s run by students…in here, it’s mostly staff and adults running things,” Faust says. “The students could make a difference if they wanted, but because they have to worry about housing and food…it’s hard.”
Additionally, there are numerous hurdles outside of COC that homeless and low-income students face, such as limited affordable housing in Santa Clarita. Currently, all Section 8 housing waiting lists are closed for the Los Angeles County, and there is a two year waiting list for housing in Santa Clarita.
“I’ve never bothered sending anyone there, you can’t wait two years, you need housing now,” says Faust.
But the government has made efforts to alleviate some of the problems for homeless students. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill requiring community colleges to give homeless students access to showers on campus.
But many students take their own initiative to attend school, despite the financial hurdles. “These students, they want to thrive in school, so they register…they’re out to get a goal, and it doesn’t matter all the other things that are happening to them. Their goal is to go to school, and I think it is very honorable for a student to do that,” says Faust.
“I feel like transfer students in general have more of a grasp on living, they’ve experienced a little bit of college, probably at home or in a cheaper environment. So I felt like I did have a better grasp on living and budgeting, and putting money in consideration. Other people, they just took the easy route of just paying the money,” said Ochoa.
Through the experience and budgeting skills he gained at COC, Ochoa was able to transfer to SDSU, and major in liberal studies.
“We just need to provide some services and assist the students,” said Faust. “I think we’re doing great [at COC] as far as resources go…so we’re a family here, and we’re trying to take care of our students.”