New shelter making a dent to solve college student homelessness

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For the last four months, a UCLA student group with a membership of over four dozen students has been running a shelter for homeless college students.

The shelter consists of two rooms inside Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica. On a recent day, a folding sign outside the church entrance read “Healing Prayers At Worship.” Inside the church UCLA undergraduate student Imesh Samarakoon opens the door to a room with two bunk beds and a single bed.

“We do like to choose residents who are in the most dire circumstances,” he said.

Samarakoon and the other volunteers call this the Bruin Shelter, which is also the name of their UCLA student group. The non-profit group they’ve started to raise money and pay rent for two rooms at the church is called the Greater Los Angeles Student Shelter.  

It opened in October, offering nine beds, a lounge, toiletries, breakfast and dinner for area college students without a place to live. A student supervisor sleeps on site each night for security. If needed, students using the shelter can stay six months.

Over three dozen students from UCLA and Santa Monica College, Samarakoon said, applied for nine slots. They gave the slots to students from both campuses.

“We really want to start a discussion, we really want to get everyone else thinking about how can we help these students,” because college student homelessness hasn’t been tackled by policymakers, he said.

The shelter’s organizers said they’re protecting the privacy of students using the shelter so a recent visit took place while students were away. The students, they said, were not willing to be interviewed.

By offering long term emergency housing and food the shelter is filling a gap. UCLA offers emergency student housing for two weeks while Santa Monica College doesn’t offer any. The shelter is not affiliated with either institution but both institutions support its mission.

The group is “very innovative as far as trying to address the issue,” said Santa Monica College Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Tuitasi.

Students at his college, he said, run a food program for homeless students and help students receive free meal vouchers while counselors help those students find housing and resources outside campus.

Tuitasi said campus data shows that there are about 130 students on his campus who are homeless or don’t have the money to pay for rent. He said that number is likely higher because students in that situation don’t come forward for help.

A new state law that went into effect this year compels all California community colleges to make showers available to homeless college students.

Researchers who study college homelessness believe piece meal efforts to help students facing food and housing insecurity should be coordinated by campus administrators. 

"Any program is made stronger when the institution takes ownership of the community, and the community meaning all students with a variety of needs. So if we really want strong programs we have to have the support at all levels in an institution," said California State University Long Beach researcher Rashida Crutchfield. She's helping lead a study of efforts at the 23 California State University campuses.

For its part UCLA said it's doing its part to help its students facing housing insecurity. The two week limit on emergency housing, a spokesman said, is lifted on a case by case basis. Its Economic Crisis Response Team helps students in crisis by granting short term loans, helping them find grants, and providing meal vouchers.

When it opened in October, administrators of the Bruin Shelter agreed to keep it open for six months based on their limited resources.

In that time it’s taken on the feel of home.

“At least just like my apartment, it’s a mess. It’s because we’ve really gotten comfortable living here,” Samarakoon said as he picked up pillows and blankets in the shelter’s second floor lounge.

After the shelter closes in April, he said, the students who run the shelter plan to talk about what worked and what didn’t. The goal for next fall is to open the shelter for the full academic year.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Imesh Samarakoon's last name. KPCC regrets the error.

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