Community college students in California, many of whom are vulnerable to food, housing and financial insecurity, may soon have a safe place to park while they sleep in their cars, if a bill authored by a Peninsula state assemblyman, Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), passes.
Assembly Bill 302 moved forward on April 2 with a 10-0 vote by the Assembly Higher Education Committee, and is next scheduled to go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
If passed, it would create a July 1, 2020, deadline by which community college campuses with on-campus parking facilities would be required to grant overnight access to homeless students who take classes, pay tuition and are in good standing with the school. Community colleges would be reimbursed by the state for additional costs to run these programs.
Community college boards would be put in charge of coming up with a plan to comply with the legislation. The parking facilities would be required to have nearby accessible bathrooms and be monitored for safety. The bill also calls for additional support to be available to students, such as housing, food and financial help from state, county, community or community college sources. Students would have to sign liability waivers and agree to certain rules.
In a press conference, Berman explained that he developed the bill in response to five informational hearings he convened throughout the state during the 2017-18 legislative session. He chairs the Assembly Select Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education in California, and during these hearings, "heard heart-wrenching stories from some students who found themselves homeless and sleeping in their cars because they could not afford the cost of housing."
"The harsh reality is that students are already sleeping in their vehicles," Berman stated. "When we do not provide a safe place for students to sleep, we force them into the shadows where they are most vulnerable."
The bill, however, is not without critics, including some members of the San Mateo County Community College District board, who have raised concerns that Berman's bill creates difficult logistical challenges for community colleges and doesn't address the true needs of homeless students.
The district includes Canada College in Woodside, the College of San Mateo, and Skyline College in San Bruno.
Agreement to disagree
Concerns raised by district board members and reported in other news outlets caused Berman to post on Twitter on April 4, saying, "Surprised to learn (of) the news that the San Mateo County Community College District doesn't think it's dignified or compassionate to provide a safe place for homeless community college students to sleep in their cars on campus. Would they prefer to ignore them?"
Berman later explained he had responded to a quote attributed to the district on KTVU, which stated that the district didn't consider the bill to be a "compassionate, dignified or humane" way to address the problem of student homelessness.
Maurice Goodman, president of the college district board, and board member Dave Mandelkern told The Almanac that they didn't agree with Berman's characterization of the board's opinion, in part because the board has not yet developed a formal position on the bill.
Goodman told The Almanac he and Berman have discussed the legislation more than once, and "agreed to disagree on certain aspects of it."
"It was premature to say we oppose this measure," Mandelkern told The Almanac.
He said he'd proposed something similar to AB 302 a year ago during a board discussion, but expressed concerns that the concept is somewhat focused on short-term, rather than long-term solutions.
Goodman said he's glad that the topic is getting attention and undergoing public debate, but pushed back against the notion that the district has ignored the problem of student homelessness.
"It couldn't be farther from the truth," he said. "We do the opposite."
"Yes. We have a problem," he added, noting that the district's surveys indicate that between 20% and 26% of students experience homelesness or food insecurity.
"The reality is that we have a few to several hundred students who are living in their cars while they're going to school," Mandelkern told The Almanac, noting that the exact figure depends on certain metrics.
A new report by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, published in March, drawing on surveys of about 40,000 students at 57 community colleges in California, which found that 70% of students had experienced homelessness or food or housing insecurity in the previous year. Nineteen percent of students surveyed had experienced homelessness in the previous year.
Mandelkern said he's heard that students favor parking overnight at 24-Hour Fitness locations because they provide around-the-clock restroom and shower access and are generally well-lit, though others seek out more secluded parking areas.
He added that the district already works with a number of county agencies and nonprofits to support students who are experiencing poverty, such as HIP Housing, Samaritan House, LifeMoves, and others.
The district has also historically been a leader in workforce housing development, and is currently looking into the possibility of building student housing, he added.
Goodman argued that the district's students deserve better than just somewhere safe to park overnight – but that responsibility shouldn't belong only to the district.
"We see people in the communities they live in, and the families they have, ... we see their value to the communities they have. ... They deserve more than being unseen and unheard, (0r) to look at this (legislation) as a win. This is not a win."
He continued: "I go back to some of the homeless veterans we serve at our colleges. I can't look at one in the eyes and say, 'Thank you for your service. Thank you for the sacrifice you made. Now all I have for you is a parking stall where you can sleep in.'"
In a similar vein, district board member Thomas Nuris commented in an email, "We do not believe that this is a dignified or humane way to address this important issue."
While installing parking facilities is something the district could do, Goodman argued, he questions the mindset of communities that would prefer to let homeless students sleep in their cars "up on the hill" near the community colleges than in local neighborhoods.
But the big question, Goodman added, is: Where do the resources come from to support a program like this?
"Do we take it from our scholarships? Our waivers? Our faculty, staff or counseling services? Those are questions that would have to come up," he added. (The bill includes a provision allowing schools to apply to the state for reimbursement of expenses for creating the safe parking lots.)
He raised other questions, such as how security at the parking facilities might work. "If we're going to have vulnerable students in one location, with everything they have to their name (there), they might become victimized," he said.
The community college district has also been trying to save money by limiting lighting at night, he argued. Would the state fund additional lighting facilities?
Without the minimum number of credits a student would need to be enrolled in to qualify for parking, Goodman added, he's worried that people might take advantage of the program by signing up for a course like a one-credit walking class, and utilize the parking service. "Anyone can be potentially a homeless student and take advantage of this opportunity," he said.
"Why not focus on the communities and cities these students live in?" Goodman asked. "Why not put pressure on them?"
In an interview, Berman acknowledged that this bill will ask a lot of community colleges, as part of a broader set of state actions, including the flood of housing-related bills working their way through the state legislature.
"By no stretch of the imagination do I mean to accuse community colleges of being part of the problem. I am asking them to be part of a solution," he said. "We're going to ask everybody at every level of society to help be a part of the housing and homelessness crisis we have in California."
Without a state mandate for safe parking, he added, local jurisdictions may be more likely to nix safe parking proposals due to neighborhood opposition. One outcome of this legislation would be that students could park overnight at community colleges in areas that otherwise ban overnight parking, he explained.
In addition, he added, the legislature is looking at other bills to increase aid to students to more effectively account for the full costs of student education.
"We as a society have failed miserably; we have failed to build the amount of housing necessary to house our students, to house our retirees, to house our workers. ... And because we as a society have failed miserably over the last few decades, we now have to look for creative solutions to address the repercussions of our failures," he said.
He acknowledges that the bill is a "band aid," or short-term approach to addressing the problem of student homelessness, but in his remarks emphasized the scale of homelessness among community college students and the urgent need for fast action.
"It's great to say we want a roof for every student, but be realistic about how long that will take, about how expensive that will be," he said. "What will that answer be to your students tonight?"
In addition to the statistic that 19 percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the last year, the survey found that the vast majority of students who experience food insecurity – 84% – are employed or looking for work, and most are still getting A's and B's in their classes, though students are somewhat more likely to struggle in class if they do experience these insecurities.
The survey found that students who were formerly part of the foster care system experience homelessness and food and housing insecurity at greater rates than their peers: 43% of students previously in foster care experience homelessness, while more than two-thirds experience food insecurity and 82% experience housing insecurity. In addition, students who reported having been convicted of a crime had higher rates of such insecurities: 44% reported homelessness and 83% reported housing insecurity.
Next, the bill will go to the appropriations committee for a cost analysis, and then be brought to the full floor of the assembly. Berman said he's planning to make amendments to the bill in response to feedback he's collecting. "I'm optimistic about the bill's chances," he added.