Nearly 20 community colleges and districts as well as the Community College League of California and Association of California Community College Administrators have formally come out in opposition to a state bill that would allow homeless students to sleep overnight in campus parking lots.
Locally, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District is remaining publicly neutral but watching closely as Assembly Bill 302, which was proposed by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, makes its way through the state Legislature.
In an interview with the Weekly, Foothill College President Thuy Nguyen called Berman's effort "admirable" but said questions remain about the financial and operational challenges created by the bill.
"The question is whether this is a good idea that should be required of all," she said.
Rolling out safe overnight parking at Foothill would not be as easy as some people think, Nguyen said. The college would have to increase its limited night-time security, potentially by contracting out the work, and consider how to accommodate students who might have children or families who would sleep in a vehicle with them, she said. The bill would also require community colleges to connect homeless students using the parking facilities with housing, food and financial resources.
"There's way more complication than one would initially think of something as ... simple as, 'If they can park during the day, why can't they park overnight?'" Nguyen said.
Preliminarily, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District estimates that implementation of the bill could cost its campuses about $830,000 each per year for additional security, custodial support, fencing, signage and, if a parking lot is not available close to bathrooms, portable toilets. This cost could vary greatly depending on the level of infrastructure spending required to support each parking area, according to Foothill.
If the Commission on State Mandates determines AB 302's requirements to be a reimbursable state mandate, the state would reimburse community colleges. But that determination is not guaranteed.
"One of the challenges with the bill for many community colleges, including Foothill, is the financial one. Where are we going to find the money?" Nguyen asked, suggesting that local tech companies or wealthy donors could potentially contribute.
Senate Committee staff have recommended the bill be amended to allow community colleges to opt out if they show they are addressing student homelessness in other ways, including by providing emergency housing grants, hotel vouchers and rapid re-housing referral services. Exempt colleges would have to report to the Community College Chancellor's Office on the services provided to homeless students, the number and type of students served and whether they remain in school or graduate.
Other amendments include adding a Dec. 31, 2022 sunset date; moving up the implementation date from July 1, 2020, to April 1, 2020; requiring that students who use the lots be enrolled in at least six units per semester; and requiring the Community College Chancellor's Office to conduct a follow-up survey on student homelessness and release the results by 2022.
The California Faculty Association, California School Employees Association, the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges and Student Senate for California Community Colleges all formally support AB 302.
At a summit on student homelessness at Foothill in June, students, faculty, community leaders and elected officials spent a day brainstorming short- and long-term solutions to the issue. Ideas ranged from the feasible — providing 24-hour study areas and laundry services and expanding a campus food pantry — to the more ambitious, including building student housing and fining owners of vacant "ghost houses."
During the summit, students who have experienced homelessness urged their campus leaders and elected officials not to shy away from out-of-the-box solutions that will help struggling students in the near term.
As a result of the summit, Nguyen said Foothill plans to pilot a smartphone application that will list available housing and food resources on campus and in the community. She also wants to talk with local cities and the county about prioritizing affordable housing and accessory dwelling units for community college students. She's working with the Foothill administration as well to make housing assistance and information part of the enrollment and orientation process for new students, just as financial aid and other support programs are.
"When students do not have money because of their family status to be able to pay for books, then we ask them, 'Do you need financial aid?' We don't make the assumption that students have an ability to pay for books," Nguyen said. "If we go at it from that mindset, then we ask the question, 'How can we provide information or even actual services to (homeless) students?"
While she won't take a firm position on AB 302, Nguyen is supportive of another bill that would change the way financial aid is calculated for community college students by taking into account the total cost of attendance, including housing. Senate Bill 291, which is co-sponsored by the California Community Colleges and the Community College League of California, is now pending in the Assembly's Higher Education Committee.
Berman's bill has brought to the forefront a student homelessness crisis at California community colleges, where nearly one in five students are either homeless or do not have a stable housing, according to a recent survey conducted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. But there is little agreement on whether overnight parking is the right solution to address this segment of the state's housing crisis.
Supporters see AB 302 as a way to provide fast-acting, much-needed relief for students who live out of their cars and struggle to find somewhere safe to park at night.
"This is not meant to be a long-term solution," Berman has said, "but the crisis exists today and we can't pretend like it doesn't."
Opponents, however, have criticized the legislation as a one-size-fits-all, temporary fix that will take resources away from long-term solutions, such as more substantial financial aid for community college students. Citing concerns about cost and liability, some community colleges have asked that compliance with the bill be optional.
"We are concerned that this well-meaning approach masks the deeper issue of lack of resources, such as financial aid for California's community college students, and instead potentially subjects students to sanitation and safety issues," the Community College League of California said in an opposition statement. "We are concerned AB 302 perpetuates the structural inequities in California's higher education system."
The bill passed the Assembly in May on a 60-8 vote and is set for a July 9 hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The safe overnight lot bill is one of several possible solutions, in Nguyen's eyes, including giving students Airbnb gift certificates for emergency, short-term housing (which Foothill is working to do) and prioritizing students for affordable housing in the area.
"Quite frankly, the community college leaders accelerated the conversation of food insecurity and housing insecurity well before the bill," she said, "but this bill has lit a fire of 'Then, what are we going to do, if it's not this?'"
• 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.