Homeless in OC: Cal State Fullerton provides resources to housing and food insecure students

In Campus News, News, Top Stories

At the end of the fall 2016 semester, Jacklyn Lao found herself struggling to find a place to live.

For almost three months, the broadcast journalism major lived in her car. She kept all her belongings in her hatchback and drove it to Cal State Fullerton every day.

“I didn’t want to live with my parents again because it was hard to live under them,” Lao said.

Lao chose to keep her homeless struggles to herself.

“I felt embarrassed that that was my living situation, and I also felt too proud to tell anybody. I didn’t want anyone feeling bad for me, and my friends at school––I didn’t want to go to school having them know that I just came from my car,” Lao said.

Normally a dedicated student, Lao began to fall behind academically, despite taking advantage of library hours and free internet access in campus coffee shops.

Lao is one of thousands of CSU students who have struggled with housing. The CSU Chancellor’s Office took a look at this problem in 2015 and released a study regarding housing and food insecure students.

The study found that an estimated 8.7 percent of the CSU student population was housing insecure and 21 percent of the CSU students were food insecure. Based on these percentages and the size of the CSUF student body, CSUF could have as many as 3,480 students who have struggled with housing issues and 8,400 who have faced some form of food insecurity.

The study defines “housing insecure” students as “youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and unaccompanied which includes youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.”

Students who are “food insecure” are those struggling to have access to safe and nutritious meals each day.

The study showed CSUF had only one program to help these kinds of students, an emergency grant for up to $500 that had to be reimbursed within 45 days.

Other CSUs had temporary housing programs, food pantries and other individualized programs for hungry or homeless students.

In response to a 2015 challenge from the CSU Chancellor’s Office, CSUF formed a “Food and Housing Security Task Force” in 2016 to tackle these problems. As a result, the university now has four beds available on campus for students who need temporary housing.

Students can use the beds for up to a month, said Carmen Curiel, the assistant dean of students. Students who are interested in using the four beds can fill out an application and set up a meeting with her, she said.

About a dozen students have used the temporary housing program since it began in the middle of the fall 2016 semester.

Because the dean’s office has spent so much time planning the program, they have not had time to market it. They plan to devote time to publicizing the option for students this summer, Curiel said.

CSUF freshman Samantha Galloway would have been a perfect candidate for the temporary housing program. She spent a month “couch surfing” to cope with her housing insecurity.

“Couch surfing” is the most common way housing insecure students manage their instability, according to the 2015 CSU study.

“I had financial aid and it was working out and then by the middle of October, I ran out of financial aid,” Galloway said. “I didn’t have a job and my mom can’t support me because she could barely support herself.”

Galloway stayed with a friend at the University House, but realized she needed to find her own permanent place.

“I got all that money and I didn’t know how to make a budget,” she said. “I just felt young and foolish with my money because the times I went to sushi, I could have been saving that money.”

In addition to the temporary housing program, this semester the task force launched “Titan Bites,” which notifies students through their campus portal when free food is being offered at on-campus events.

For example, ASI regularly hosts “Taco Tuesdays” at the Tuffy Lawn. When events like these occur, “Titan Bites” notifies students.

Board of Directors ASI Chair Kayleigh Bates was on the task force last year and helped spearhead the “Titan Bites” program.

When Bates was a resident advisor in on-campus housing, there were a number of events where her team gave out free food and had leftovers. She felt bad letting that left over food go to waste while there were students on campus struggling to get regular meals, she said.

The task force also recommended the university start a food pantry. Because the budget for the next academic year has not been finalized, they have yet to receive an answer from the president’s office. However, they are working on securing resources, including state funds and donations, to ensure ongoing support of the pantry.

“After we started talking about a food pantry, (students) then started to tell us about their stories, which all of them are heartbreaking,” Bates said. “You don’t want to hear the stories where a student tells you (they) can’t pay attention in class because (they’re) so hungry or (they’re) so stressed because (they) have nowhere to sleep.”

The task force envisioned an open and inviting space for the food pantry in hopes of decreasing stigma, Curiel said. They also hope to offer information on other resources at the on-campus food pantry. The goal is to have it up and running by fall 2017.

Other Cal State Universities that have food pantries already in place are CSU Bakersfield, Chico State, Humboldt State, CSU Long Beach, CSU Northridge, Sacramento State, CSU San Bernardino and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

For students who need meal assistance, meal cards donated by CSUF Auxiliary Services Corporation (ASC) are available and can be redeemed at any of the campus dining facilities. This is another temporary program that began in October 2016 and is for students who can prove their need. If students need more than temporary help, the university will connect them with outside resources, Curiel said.

About six students have received meal cards this year.

The new food programs, a food pantry and the ASC cards could help students who are hungry and could have helped Lao when she was living out of her car had they been available.

Lao was trying not to eat as much because she was trying to save money for rent. When she would eat, she would eat in her car.

As programs come available, Lao said she thinks the university needs to find ways to advertise them to students who may need them.

“Maybe have it be more like a help line that’s confidential because I know that a lot of kids would be embarrassed to go to a person,” Lao said. “Have it be like something you can find out without having to go through someone first.”

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