Homeless College Students Common at Cal State Universities

California State University students have so much difficulty making ends meet, that approximately 10 percent of students are homeless.  As many as 20 to 24 percent of students are food insecure.  While national figures are hard to come by, research shows that California is not the only state where homeless college students are common.  Oregon set up a program a couple of years ago to address the problem among their state university students.

Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White commissioned a study of the 23 campuses that make up the California State University system.  The results of their research were shocking.

Students are not required to self-identify themselves as homeless on their applications.  As a result, administrators are often unaware of students who are living in their cars or couch surfing between their friends.  Many of these students are too embarrassed to tell anyone about their situation.

Statistics on Student Homelessness and Food Insecurity

Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Cal State Long Beach conducted some of the research into campus homelessness.  She discovered that many of the students do not understand the definition of homelessness.  If they are living in their car or couch surfing, they may not see themselves as homeless.  However, her research discovered that between 8 percent and 12 percent of the 460,000 students on the various Cal State campuses are homeless.  Some of them are spending their nights in homeless shelters.  Others have no regular place to sleep.

In addition, Crutchfield discovered that between 21 percent and 24 percent of Cal State students are food insecure.  Many students do not have a consistent source of money that they can use to purchase food.  As a result, some professors and other staff members keep food in their offices to give to students who admit to going hungry.  Other professors admit to having given money to their students so they could purchase food.

Causes of Student Homelessness

Researchers discovered that there is no single reason for homelessness among the students.  Some students are in the situation because they believe that it is the only way they can afford to attend college.  Cal State students from low-income homes are eligible for grants to cover their tuition. However, not all of the grants cover the cost of housing, books, food, materials and other expenses.  Many of these students are reluctant to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to pay for their housing and food.

In some cases, students do not have families that live near a Cal State campus.  In other situations, a family conflict has caused the students to move out of their parents’ home and into their cars.

Sometimes, students have housing during the academic year in a dorm, either with the help of grants or by taking out student loans.  However, when school is not in session, they move into their cars or try to find friends who will let them stay temporarily with them.  Many students have difficulty finding temporary summer jobs that pay enough to cover the cost of housing.

Solutions to Student Homelessness

There are no easy solutions to student homelessness, without extending grants that cover year-around housing for low-income students.

Some campuses, such as Fresno State, have opened food pantries that offer students the leftover food from catered events, groceries, toothpaste and other basic supplies.

Cal State Long Beach offers some of their students emergency grants, temporary hotel vouchers, meal assistance, counseling and campus jobs.  However, during the first year of operation, only nine homeless students secured campus jobs through this program … a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of homeless students estimated to be attending college classes on that campus.  In addition, a part-time minimum wage job is unlikely to be adequate to provide a homeless student with an income adequate to cover food, housing and other expenses.

Much more needs to be done before administrators will be able to make a major dent in the problem of college student homelessness and food insecurity.


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