Story by Ella Shapiro. Photo courtesy of CSULB Associated Students Inc.
Liz Waite is one of over 480,000 students in the California State University system. She studies at her campus library, uses her school’s computer labs, and lounges at her university’s cafés. No one who sees Waite at Cal State Long Beach would assume that she is one of the over 24,000 CSU students experiencing homelessness.
“These students do everything right,” Waite said during her 2018 TEDxCSULB talk where she discussed the experience of unhoused college students. “But due to, among many other things, a lack of family support and the enormous cost of living in California, [they] struggle every day with the basic necessities of food and shelter. And I am one of them.”
The most recent comprehensive study of student basic needs was the Basic Needs Initiative, conducted by the CSU system in 2018. In the study, 10.9% of students reported experiencing homelessness one or more times within a 12-month period and 40.6% of students reported experiencing food insecurity. Last year’s closure of campuses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the housing and food insecurity that students are experiencing and has made it increasingly challenging for universities to connect students with critical resources, leaving many struggling.
Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at CSULB and one of the principal investigators for the CSU Basic Needs Initiative, has spent years studying housing and food insecurity among students in the CSU system.
“This pandemic has hit everyone, all people in some way or another, dramatically,” Crutchfield said. “Particularly for students who experience homelessness, I would say that a lot of those students were relying on the campus as an anchor, as a place where they had some stability and we lost that stability.”
In September, a group of researchers at CSU Chico conducted a study that assessed how the pandemic has directly affected students’ access to basic needs.
“There are students that are already impacted with housing, already impacted with a lack of resources, or the impact of the lack of supportive family,” said Suyet Peralta Diaz, a Master of Social Work student who worked on the CSU Chico study. “When campus closed down a lot of these students didn’t know where they were going.”
26 students were surveyed in the CSU Chico study and all of them described struggling to obtain adequate food and stable housing due to sudden unemployment and the closure of campus facilities. The main issue that the study highlighted was that many students were not receiving the support they needed from campus simply because they were not aware of what support was available to them.
“We had people who didn’t realize the pantry existed,” Diaz said.
Diaz is referring to CSU Chico’s Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry, which is one of the many food pantries in the CSU system that provides food, hygiene, and kitchen items for students. The Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry has remained open throughout the pandemic, but without the normal traffic of students on campus and challenges to effectively spread the word about its services, it has been underutilized by students in need.
While CSU Chico has struggled to maintain use of its food pantry during the pandemic, other universities, such as CSULB, have managed to continue giving food to students each week by adopting alternative, socially-distanced methods of food distribution. Since the start of the pandemic, CSULB’s Beach Pantry has transitioned into a weekly pop-up event where students can receive food packages from a drive-through stand that the Beach Pantry set up in one of CSULB’s parking lots.
Ken Kelly, the director of CSULB’s Basic Needs Department said that before the pandemic, the Beach Pantry would average around 300 students per day, and now, roughly 250 students attend each pop-up event.
“It’s substantially less, but it’s also more challenging because of the circumstances and how you have to do it to meet all the codes and keep it contactless,” Kelly said. “So I think they do a really good job with what they have.”
Success in connecting students with resources has not only varied between different CSUs in terms of food, but also in providing emergency financial assistance.
In April 2020 the US Department of Education allocated more than $262 million as a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to the CSU system, to distribute to students as emergency aid grants. While this funding provided some much-needed support for students, former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos chose to exclude students who are not typically eligible for federal financial aid, such as undocumented and international students. Devos claimed that eligibility restrictions were necessary due to vague language in the legislation, but Congress has since argued that the legislation had no intent of excluding any students from receiving aid. Ultimately, Devos’ decision left individual universities with the responsibility of supporting ineligible students.
Diaz, who is an undocumented student, did not initially receive funding from the CARES Act, but received financial aid from a second round of emergency grant payments distributed by CSU Chico.
Sneh Dodhia, a Kenyan international student at CSULB, was also excluded from the CARES Act. CSULB reported providing additional non-federal funding for students who were excluded from the first round of grant payments, which students could apply for via an online application. Dodhia applied for this second round of emergency grants, but never received any aid, or an explanation as to why her application seemed to have been dismissed.
“I think I didn’t get aid because I’m an international student,” Dodhia said. “Regardless of that, I was in America for most of COVID and it would have been really helpful to have that. There were moments during COVID where banks were closed and things were closed, so my parents had to send me money and I had to wait a long time to receive it. It just would have been helpful.”
As each CSU continues to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic and find ways to support their students, experts like Crutchfield say that it is critical that universities recognize that while not every student’s needs are the same, food and housing insecurity is far more widespread than many realize and that strong, responsive communities of support on college campuses are now more important than ever.
“If campuses have a robust program and a campus culture and climate where accessing services has been normalized then students are more likely to know services exist,” Crutchfield said. “Seeking support is not only needed and appropriate, but is actually fundamental to being successful. Becoming an adult, or ‘adulting,’ means connecting to others and sharing our nurturing across our community.”