Homeless community college students will be permitted to park and sleep in their cars overnight at any community college in California if Assembly Bill 302, proposed by a former Palo Alto city councilman, passes.
AB 302 is a proposed state mandate that would require community colleges with parking facilities to allow overnight parking for homeless students. The schools would apply to the state to get their expenses reimbursed for creating these safe parking lots.
To qualify for the program, students must be enrolled in courses, have paid for those courses and must be in good standing with their college.
Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, who authored the bill, said he was moved during five informational hearings throughout the state during the 2017-2018 legislative session, when students shared their stories of homelessness and housing insecurities that prevented them from completing their degrees.
The bill passed by a 10-0 vote out of the Assembly Higher Education Committee on Tuesday and it will next go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee in mid-May, according to Berman.
"When we surveyed homeless college liaisons, they said that housing is the greatest need of the students they serve and yet the hardest need to meet," Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, said during a press conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Tuesday.
The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and The Hope Center's #RealCollege initiative surveyed nearly 40,000 students at 57 community colleges statewide.
Of those respondents, 19 percent said they experienced homelessness in the last 12 months and 20 percent said they experienced having to sleep in their cars.
Extrapolate that to California's community college population of 2.1 million students, and it means that almost 400,000 students statewide have experienced homelessness in the last year.
"Four hundred thousand homeless community college students in California is totally unacceptable," Berman said.
The assemblyman said he wants to tackle this issue head-on with feasible short-term solutions that have never been done before, such as AB 302.
"This is the answer, not the problem," Berman said. "It's not like these kids don't exist, and we need to stop pretending like they don't exist. We need to start helping them."
Students also addressed how these basic-need insecurities are not just getting in the way of their education, but creating concerns for their overall safety.
"I was working full time and I was going to school in the evenings and after I left class each night, the biggest challenge for me was, where am I going to go?" said Anthony White, a second-year Palomar College student and veteran of the U.S. Marines.
White said he lived in his truck for eight months while being a full-time father, but decided to send his son to live with his mother out of state because his housing situation was not stable enough.
"These students are sleeping in their cars, in our communities, tonight. It's happening," Berman said. "Rather than the student sleeping in a residential neighborhood in Palo Alto, the student will be able to sleep in their cars on campus at Foothill or De Anza community college."
Matthew Bodo, a third-year student at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, also experienced homelessness for about two years off and on. He primarily slept in his car while couch surfing and trying to find a stable place to live.
Bodo said he was a full-time student at the time he was homeless and worked a full-time job, but was still unable to afford rent. He then tried to sleep at the parking facilities on Foothill College's campus, but was met with police resistance.
"I did attempt to sleep in my car on campus and was asked to leave several times by campus police," said Bodo. "So I resorted to sleeping nearby off campus, which was not well received by the residents of the area."
Bodo said residents vandalized his car, which made more fo an impact because the vehicle served as his home.
"I ended up parking farther and farther away from campus to try and find somewhere legal and safe, which was problematic because every day before starting my day at work or school, I would travel to campus to use the showers that were available to all students," he said.
The showers and other facilities Bodo accessed were recently made available to students through an existing bill, AB 1995.
The wording of AB 302 is still vague because Berman said he wants as much flexibility for individual colleges' governing boards to come up with their own plans, including figuring out how to identify these students, quiet hours and security concerning local police.
Berman said he knows he is asking a lot from community colleges, but assures he is asking the same from everyone.
"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," Berman said. "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."
Learn more about state bills on housing currently working their way through the Legislature by watching the April 5 episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.