On Sunday, the Vanguard published a guest commentary from Don Gibson which laid out a number of findings from a survey. That survey, which was part of the chancellor’s Affordable Housing Task Force, identifies that around 19 percent of surveyed students are housing insecure, with 9 percent of those homeless at one point during the school year.
What we do not know is how that number is derived and what it means. Nevertheless, the number has generated some skepticism. One commenter noted that “we all know that there are not 7,000+ UCD students who are homeless ‘or’ even ‘really’ worried that they will be homeless.” They followed up by questioning whether I really think there are 3.453 UC Davis students “that would be considered ‘homeless’ by most people.”
Don Gibson told me that there will be additional information released in a week or two with more focus on methodology.
I found the responses interesting because, while Don Gibson and I were largely focused in our analysis on the lack of available housing, most of the commenters focused on cost. I would argue that the commenters, mostly from a very different generation, were overly dismissive of cost factors but completely ignored the supply-based analysis.
Don Gibson’s commentary noted that, even if UC Davis builds everything it says it will, there will still be a shortage of 1200 beds. He went on to point out that the 19 percent of UC Davis students “report some form of homelessness or housing insecurity (couch surfing).” His argument: “we can do better.”
Finally he points out the growing number of students – approximately 2200 – who are living in mini-dorms in town, thereby impacting neighborhoods.
So why was the response focused almost entirely on the housing insecure/homeless statistic? Even in my commentary on Don Gibson’s numbers, the emphasis was on housing supply, not homelessness.
And yet, while the homelessness stat represented only about four paragraphs of a much longer piece, it represented nearly all of the comments.
I conceded in the comments that I don’t have the methodology or even the definition of homelessness. The piece focused entirely on the supply issue, and, yet, I get accused of being Fox News or perhaps MSNBC.
Aside from this point, I found a lot of comments by the readers to be not only very dismissive, but unaware of the extent to which we simply lack both data and information on the nature of the student homelessness problem.
On June 30, CBS News ran a story, “The hidden problem of homelessness on college campuses.” In it, they followed a 23-year-old at UCLA’s campus, Alejandro Reyes, who, while he blends in, is homeless. His locker is his closet, he brushes his teeth in the public restroom and he sleeps on a sofa inside the library.
He told CBS News, “I truly believe that I’m going to a different school than my peers are.”
He added, “My first quarter here, I actually lived inside of my car. … That’s where I had all my clothes, everything I needed for the day.”
The student is hoping to attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. He is one of at least 32,000 college students that were homeless in 2017, according to the US Department of Education.
As CBS explained, “His yearly tuition at UCLA costs about $13,000, which is covered by financial aid, student loans and a job he has on campus. After books and food, though, there’s nothing left for rent.”
According to CBS, this is not just a housing problem. “A survey of students at 10 University of California campuses reveals 48 percent of underclassmen are food insecure and have to skip meals.”
Last spring, the Vanguard sampled some students and found that quite a few spent $20 or less a week on food. I have often believed that many adults in the community, many of whom grew up during a different time, are out of touch with the struggles of students.
The fact is, how would we even know how many people like Alejandro Reyes are there at UC Davis? The Vanguard has consistently heard accounts of students who sleep in the library or 24-hour reading rooms, and we know of many who live in their cars. Eric Gudz tried to bring attention to this issue last spring by sleeping in a vehicle himself.
One of the anonymous posters thinks the number cannot possibly be over 3000 students – he may be right, but how would he know? It’s not like people like Alejandro Reyes are visible to even their fellow students, let alone the general population.
We don’t know how many there are in such a situation because we have not had adequate data and that’s why the Affordable Housing Task Force, set up by the chancellor, conducted the survey. Do we really believe that the chancellor’s survey is going to fudge the number of homeless and housing insecure students?
I want to address a few points that were raised here.
First, I think we have to acknowledge that student homelessness is a fundamentally different issue than the general homeless population. Why? For one thing, there is an element of choice here. The student interviewed by CBS wants to go to medical school, and he is willing to sacrifice comfort in order to get his degree.
Homelessness in general seems to be a function of economic insecurity combined with things like mental illness and substance abuse. That is not what is happening with the student populations.
Matt Williams points out: “The students being discussed have made the choice to pay UCD tuition and fees so that their focused ‘job’ in life is to get an education. That ‘job’ comes with room and board costs in addition to the tuition and fees. One would hope that the student and his/her parents sat down and put together a multi-year budget to determine whether they could actually afford the ‘job’ at UCD they aspired to. If they can’t afford a UCD education, as Ken has pointed out, there are more affordable alternatives … as well as considerably more expensive alternatives.”
Or they simply do as they are doing – they bite the short-term bullet in order to reach their goal of a college education in hopes that it leads to a better future.
Matt Williams argues that “your failure to plan does not constitute our emergency.” He adds, “For those students, if the independence choice does create an emergency it is a self-imposed emergency, and very far from a crisis.”
But, isn’t that our emergency? I understand that there are less costly ways to get a college education, but is that a good thing? Should a UC education be out of the price range of middle America?
There is this notion that parents can supplement their kids education. But can they? Certainly there are people who are wealthy enough that they can pump in several thousand a month to pay for their kid’s remaining expenses.
But we have seen, in places in California, relatively high rates of salary have left people still vulnerable to the high cost of housing and living. On paper, many people who appear to have reasonable incomes are living month to month. For them, the idea that they can supplement costs for their college-aged kids is probably not reasonable.
But, instead of taking that into account, many who have grown up in very different situations are passing judgment.
There are those who point out that UC Davis has lower costs of living than other UC schools. Our analysis bears that out from last spring. UC Davis had the second lowest cost of housing off campus (although the second highest cost of housing on campus).
The problem with UC Davis is lack of available housing – and most of our analysis, and that of Don Gibson, focused on that.
What I view as the crisis and the emergency then is not necessarily the fact that a UC education, when considering the totality of tuition, food, rent and supplies, is out of the reach of many students – although that is an increasing concern. What I consider the crisis is that we lack affordable living arrangements for the students who are here, which has made a tough situation far worse.
And, while we can blame UC Davis for increasing their enrollment without giving any thought to where those students are going to live, we also have to look at our responsibility as a host city and note that UC Davis’ enrollment has increased greatly since 2002 – the last time that Davis added market rate housing options for students.
That is a crisis of its own, and one that we own.
—David M. Greenwald reporting