We all have heard the term the “starving student”, but typically it’s a reference to playfully tease a student who has limited pocket money. However, the starving student is no longer a playful joke, but rather a serious reality many 20-something year old college students face. A recent study commissioned by Cal State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy P. White reveals that one in 10 Cal State students are homeless, and one in five do not have access to sufficient food.
The findings of the study have been shocking to administrators, faculty, and the public alike. For social work students at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) this week’s breaking news comes as no surprise.
This spring, Cal State LA’s Association of Student Social Workers hosted Box City, a two-day event in which students and faculty, simulated street-dwelling by assembling boxes and tents at the university campus. Over the course of the night, they raised awareness and donations for homelessness in Los Angeles while simultaneously, gaining empathy and understanding by experiencing what it is like to be without a home for a night.
What started as an event to raise awareness on homelessness occurring in the neighboring communities turned into something much more.
As the outreach officer for ASSW, I assisted in promoting the event. As I began to reach out to more and more students about issues of homelessness and the reasons why to attend Box City, the more I began to recognize that housing and food insecurities was not unfamiliar territory for students at Cal State LA. Students began sharing with me their own personal stories of nights without a shelter, and how they would attend club meetings on campus because they were assured a free meal.
It was ironic. Here we were, venturing off to help the very issue that was right at our front door step. Homelessness was happening right in front of us, and many of us did not see it.
During the course of the Box City we invited a student to speak on his experience of being homeless. When the event concluded, a few students who have also faced housing and food insecurities privately thanked ASSW for hosting the event and showing them they were not alone and that people cared about their wellbeing.
I am going to reiterate that this event was not initially aimed for the students at Cal State LA. During the planning process of Box City we were unaware of the homeless population on campus. However, we are thankful we were able to bring awareness on this invisible issue amongst us on campus: homeless students.
I think we can all agree that with today’s fast-paced world juggling work, academics, and a personal life can make pursuing a higher degree difficult, but for one in 10 CSU students they also have to worry whether or not they will have a safe place to sleep and a nutritional meal to fuel their body.
Currently, CSU campuses have enacted their own initiatives on how to address students’ need for housing and food security; however, this is resulting in many campuses falling short from providing needed services.
To ensure that students’ needs are met, we need to advocate for a Cal State University (CSU) system wide commitment policy that addresses the housing and food insecurities, develop a program in which there is a single point of contact to facilitate connections to services on and off campus, and assign ASI and students to have a lead role in the outreach to destigmatize assistance to food and housing.
Today, many students don’t speak out about their housing and food instability because of fear of being stigmatized by peers, unaware of how to receive assistance, and the lack of assistance available. Faculty, administrators, and Social Work departments at CSUs need to work together to create solutions, and give a voice for the students at CSUs whose basic needs are not being met.