Thousands of homeless among LA community college students

L.A. community college officials and politicians highlighted the issue of student homelessness and hunger.
L.A. community college officials and politicians highlighted the issue of student homelessness and hunger.
Rina Palta / KPCC

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Nearly one in five Los Angeles community college students who responded to a new survey reporting experiencing homelessness at some point in the past year.

Officials with the L.A. Community College District and local politicians highlighted the results of the survey Thursday in an effort to bring awareness to what they believe is a growing problem in the county and the nation. 

"These will not just be statistics on a wall," said Wendy Greuel, chair of L.A.'s Homeless Services Authority's Board of Commissioners. 

The online survey, which garnered about about 5,925 responses out of 134,345 enrolled students, has a two percent margin of error, officials said. 

Students were asked such questions as whether they'd experienced a night in which they didn't know where they'd sleep, were ever evicted or thrown out of a home, or stayed in a shelter, abandoned building or car. 

They were also asked about their access to food, such as whether they had ever neglected to eat because there wasn't money for food. Nearly 63 percent of respondents reported some degree of hunger.

Respondents who'd been in the foster care system reported particularly high rates of food insecurity and homelessness. Those who were widowed or divorced reported high levels of both, as did Native Americans and African Americans compared to other demographic groups. 

A number of those who responded to the survey lived in public housing projects (10 percent) or received a federal Section 8 voucher to help pay rent (6.6 percent).

Officials promised Thursday to do more, including implementing a food insecurity program in the coming months and researching the possibility of providing affordable student housing. 

"One of the immediate things we'd like to do is get food out there, through our contract with our food vendor," said Mike Eng, a member of the Board of Trustees of the L.A. Community College District. 

But some students were skeptical that anything would happen fast. One of them is Ernesto Yanes-Arnold, a student at L.A.'s Trade Technical College, who's been living in his car since he aged out of the foster care system.

"There's always things being promised for us, for out population," he said. "But I'm still living in my car."

The state budget, which Governor Jerry Brown signed this week, included $7.5 million for food programs on college and community college campuses that choose to participate, including food banks, workers to help sign students up for CalFresh (food stamps), and programs where students can donate meal points from their plans to students who need food.

"That means students will not have the most basic issue, food, stand in between them and a diploma," said Rachel Sumekh, of Swipe Out Hunger, who helped advocate for the funding.

L.A.'s most recent homeless census, conducted in January, counted nearly 58,000 people who sleep on the streets, in cars, or in shelters on any given night in the county—a 23 percent jump from 2016. The biggest growth was in children, and particularly, young adults. 

The report, which was put together by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, also developed a set of recommendations for the community college district. Among them were providing on-campus showers to homeless students, creating a point-person for student poverty-related issues, and developing a streamlined way to hook eligible students up with public benefits.