“Adam” (whose name has been changed for privacy), 21, has a million-dollar ocean view. Every morning he wakes up on the sidewalks of beachside Isla Vista, rolls up his sleeping bag, and climbs a tree to hide his bed amid the branches. Instead of a morning shower, he rubs on some of the scented lotion he picked up at the local food drive and admires the coastline as he heads to class. He carries his few belongings in the pockets of his jeans and blends in perfectly with the rest of the student population.
Adam is not enrolled at UCSB — he’s unable to afford tuition or rent — but he audits classes nonetheless. He’s careful to attend large lectures where he’s most likely to go unnoticed, but he was recently told by a faculty member that auditing classes is prohibited without permission from the instructor.
“I don’t have money for a college degree,” said Adam. “It’s something I dream of, but I also dream of finding achievement from this experience as an underrepresented youth.”
Adam is among the hidden homeless students living in Isla Vista — attracted by the lure of higher education but unable to afford a typical college life. Because they do not fit the stereotype of homelessness, homeless students are difficult to identify and differentiate from other students.
Although no exact numbers are available, UCSB Non-Traditional Student Resource Center Director Joshua Johnson said he works with seven to 10 students throughout the year who struggle with housing.
Johnson said that the majority of the students struggling with housing are nontraditional, meaning generally they are over the age of 25, supporting families, re-entry students, or some combination thereof. These students struggle more to meet their living expenses because they often do not have the support systems of most traditional students.
Johnson said that some of the students he has worked with have slept in the library, in their cars, or on a friend’s couch to avoid the high price of rent in Isla Vista and Goleta.
Johnson’s first encounter with a homeless student was three years ago when he first started working at the UCSB Student Resource Center. Johnson remembers casually asking the student if she lived on campus, and the student replied that she lived in her car in the parking lot behind him. “I’m not quite sure what my facial expression was, but she apologized to me for making me feel uncomfortable,” said Johnson.
“I should have been the one apologizing to her for making an assumption that everybody lives in an apartment or a house,” said Johnson. “We have a certain idea of what homeless people are, but we have no idea what kind of sacrifices people make in order to get an education.”
Some students can secure enough aid to cover tuition but not basic living costs. Johnson says they tend to eat free food at campus events and grab showers at the recreation center.
“Emma” (whose name was changed for this article), a 20-year-old UCSB student who lives in her car in Isla Vista, is one of them. She begins her week by driving two hours every Monday morning to Isla Vista from her parents’ home in Los Angeles. She takes four courses Monday through Thursday, then drives back to Los Angeles on Friday. When she’s not in class, she is studying, scoping out the local food banks, or sleeping in her five-passenger car.
“I try to park at corners or behind trees for a bit more privacy,” said Emma as she showed me where she keeps a single pillow and a neatly folded blanket underneath the driver’s seat. Underneath the passenger seat was a box of crackers she got from the UCSB Associated Students Food Bank (ASFB) that she kept for a midnight snack. Her books and school supplies went up front next to the steering wheel. “A few of my close friends know, but for the most part I try to keep my living situation to myself. I don’t want to be judged just because I can’t afford rent, but I still want an education.”
Emma dreams of being the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I am doing this for me and my future, but also for my family,” said Emma. She said she has had her sights on the a University of California school since high school, and although she often felt overwhelmed trying to balance her studies with the constant worry of finding food and safe shelter, it was a price she is willing to pay to attend a highly acclaimed university.
“I love this school,” said Emma. “Sure, it gets tough sometimes, and it would be easy to just drop out, but I know in the end it will be worth it.”
Emma said she receives enough financial aid to cover tuition and books, but rent is beyond her means. According to the UCSB Community Housing Office, the average price students paid for a room in a shared house in Isla Vista during 2012 was $750 per month.
“Even with financial aid, the price of rent is way too expensive for me,” said Emma as her 30-minute break between classes came to an end and she hastily packed two spiral-bound notebooks and an iclicker into her worn-out blue JanSport backpack. “Not only is sleeping in my car uncomfortable, but it makes me feel like a temporary student, like I shouldn’t really be here.”
Financially challenged students like Emma who are determined to get a UC education have to prioritize where they invest limited resources. Housing and food always take a back seat to tuition, said Erick Lankey, a second-year UCSB student who cochairs the AFSB Committee. Lankey said there has been an increase from the roughly 80 students a week who visited the on-campus food bank last year to about 300 students a week this year — a 200 percent increase. Lankey believed the rise is due to the tuition increase of 18 percent total in the 2011-2012 school year and to more effective marketing on the ASFB’s part.
The student food bank also provides a list of food banks and shelters available throughout Santa Barbara. Jill Wallerstedt, supervisor of homeless guest services at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, said approximately 10 college students use the mission’s services every month. Wallerstedt reported that the majority of these students attend SBCC, but college students or not, they can only stay at the Rescue Mission for a limited time because it provides emergency, not long-term, shelter.
Emma had heard of the emergency shelter downtown but has never considered going there. “I don’t think there’s really a place for people in my situation,” said Emma. “I have a home in L.A. It’s just not where I live right now.”
Johnson, who is also the director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center on campus, reported that these groups often overlap. “It is not uncommon for queer students to be cut off financially by their parents,” he said. “Forty percent of homeless youth are queer. They are verbally, emotionally, and spiritually abused, and often, they are told that if they choose to live this way, they will no longer have a home.”
Federal student loan applications changed in 2007 to accommodate homeless, independent youth; however, many students who may qualify for more financial aid to cover both tuition and living expenses, such as Adam, continue to struggle financially despite this relatively new program.
“I am homeless, but I’m still a smart guy,” said Adam. “I am a serious and professional individual trying to solve complex problems, just like everybody else is, and the fact that I can’t get the backing of a professional university to prove it makes things so much more difficult.”