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City, University Partner to Help Homeless College Students

San Diego (Photo by: Rufustelestrat)

Half of all community college students are struggling with food or housing insecurity, a recent survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates found. Twenty percent are hungry, 13 percent are homeless, and more than 20 percent have difficulty paying their rent.

A housing-first initiative in San Diego aims to provide help for those college students experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The San Diego Housing Commission is partnering with San Diego State University to provide about $1 million in rental assistance for up to 100 students.

“Students should be focused on learning, not whether they have a place to sleep at night,” Kevin Faulconer, mayor of San Diego, said in a press release. “By focusing on getting people into housing first and off the streets, we continue to make progress to end the cycle of homelessness.” The partnership between the city and the university is part of a three-year “Housing First San Diego” homelessness action plan kicked off last year by the San Diego Housing Commission, which provides homelessness and affordable housing programs for the city.

Since colleges aren’t required to keep statistics on homeless students, and some students are hesitant to admit they’re homeless, it’s hard to know the exact number of homeless students in a given year. According to federal financial aid records, more than 56,000 college students were classified as homeless during the 2013-2014. A year earlier, the number was 60,000. California, Texas and Illinois have the largest populations of homeless students.

Formal efforts to identify and help homeless college students — like the partnership between San Diego and SDSU — are relatively recent, but an increasing number of colleges are launching programs for that purpose. At UCLA, a response team is in place to provide emergency financial aid assistance, meal vouchers and even professional attire for interviews. Florida State University offers an “Unconquered Scholars” program for students who have experienced homelessness to provide additional academic, social and emotional support. And an increasing number of universities have on-campus food banks for students. In 2007, Michigan State University was the first U.S. college with a food bank. Today, the College and University Food Bank Alliance has more than 240 active member institutions.

Shirley Weber, a San Diego assemblywoman leading a committee to address homelessness and food insecurity on college campuses, told KPBS that most public colleges in California now have food pantries. Her committee is continuing to look for new ways to help students. “We began to look at all kinds of things on campus that impede students from being successful,” Weber said. “Students are also seeing it’s their responsibility to help their peers.”