With the cost of a UCSB education running upward of $30,000 a year, university grads and undergrads often find the cost of rent the straw that breaks their back. As much as 8 percent of UCSB students find themselves without a home during their college career, a disturbing fact uncovered in an on-campus and email survey conducted by students in 2013. A similar survey at SBCC in 2014 found a similar statistic — about 5 percent of students had been squeezed out of their homes.
In the university survey, students said they had lost their housing due to both the limited supply and the high cost: One international student arrived to find his university-owned housing overbooked and then couldn’t find an affordable apartment or room; some students found themselves between leases and forced into motels or onto friends’ couches; and many sacked out in parks, slept in campus offices, or lived in their cars when they could no longer afford rent for many different reasons.
Most were concerned that they slept without security and that worry about their situation was affecting their ability to study and work at their majors. Another problem that arose was the embarrassment of having no home to call their own and no bathroom or shower readily available. Universally, those who left comments said rent was too expensive. Even a cursory look at Craigslist shows how hard it is to find a room in a house or apartment in Isla Vista for less than $1,000 a month during the school year.
In raw numbers, the university survey asked 1,083 students if they considered themselves houseless or homeless while attending college, and 96 answered “yes.” What prompted the questionnaire was an op-ed written by student Vered Hazanchuk, which appeared at independent.com, in which she interviewed students in Isla Vista who were living in their cars.
The SBCC survey, which was taken to find out if a campus Foodbank was needed, asked students to describe their living situation. Among the 1,078 students who chose from among the options given, 36 said they had no permanent residence, and 16 stated they were homeless.
With an average student body of about 22,000 over the past five years at UCSB, and SBCC giving a headcount of about 30,000 students for 2013-2014, the quantity of students attending college in Santa Barbara while struggling with homelessness is potentially in the thousands. What that number reflects could be a temporary condition while waiting between apartments to being flat broke and finding the backseat of the car the best overnight option. From UCSB Housing to its Financial Aid office, officials indicate that few students come forward to ask for help. Chris Wegemer, one of the leaders of the university survey effort, explained, “People generally do not want to identify with the term,” when asked how survey-takers might have defined homelessness.
The reluctance to be labeled homeless, as well as the difficulties faced, is borne out in the statistics from UCSB’s Financial Aid office. For several years, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA, which most every college applicant is advised to fill out) has asked if the applicant was homeless or at risk. In contrast to the school’s survey results, 10 UCSB enrollees reported they were homeless this past school year. Additional financial aid for housing is offered to these students once they are classified as “independent students” — in other words, their financial circumstance is not linked to their parents’ — but they need verification from their previous school district that they were an “unaccompanied homeless youth.” After this hurdle was leapt, five students received additional aid, said Mike Miller, director of UCSB’s Financial Aid office.
For the five who did not get additional aid, Miller said the reasons they reported they were homeless ran the gamut from being cut off by their parents to mistakes made filling out the FAFSA.
The homeless coalition group C3H (Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness) includes young people and car-campers in the two-day survey of homeless people it conducts throughout Santa Barbara County every two years, but it does not break out college students. Overall, 99 people were counted as living in shelters or on the street in Isla Vista and Goleta in the most recent count in January. The people living in their cars are generally found through the Safe Parking Program; youth can be harder to count, said Emily Allen, with Santa Barbara Legal Aid and a C3H volunteer, because they “couch surf.” Even with the participation of many students as outreach workers, Allen pointed out that not all people experiencing homelessness get counted.
And on campus, so far it has been SBCC and UCSB students who’ve been most troubled by the fact that many of their fellow students are homeless, probably because it’s something only close friends are aware of and the homeless students prefer not to advertise the fact. In recent years, a group of UCSB students and administrators have met to discuss housing, and homelessness. Though the safe parking issue dwindled as members of the group graduated, UCSB’s student government, Associated Students (AS), continued to work on the issue of hunger. The AS Foodbank has been in place since 2011 and helps students with financial difficulties and also unstable housing, said Tuyen Nguyen, AS Foodbank coordinator. It served about 5,000 students this past year, said George Foulsham of UCSB Public Affairs, with an average of 1,000 visits per week and several dozen newcomers weekly.
In the teeming village of Isla Vista, where housing is both tight and pricey, one of the goals of the university’s Long Range Development Plan, which outlines the look of the sprawling campus by the year 2025, has always been to “provide housing that is below market price,” Foulsham said. Two of the apartment complexes in the plan, Sierra Madre and San Joaquin, are priced to be below market. Scheduled to be open to students by fall 2015, rooms in Sierra Madre Village’s 109 apartments are currently slated to rent for $646 per month, to include furnishings, Internet access, and housekeeping services. The San Joaquin village and its 178 apartments for students, staff, and faculty should be completed by the following fall, and rent prices have not been announced.
The long-range plan looks to bring about 250 more students to UCSB annually through 2025, and its housing element adds more than 5,000 beds. Along with last month’s agreement between the UC and Governor Brown to freeze tuition for another two years for residents, a pact now in the hands of legislators after several years of tuition leaps, students may finally have a fighting chance at financial stability and housing.