California junior college offers a lifeline for homeless students

Lack of housing and high costs mean more students are couch-surfing and sleeping in their cars

LONG BEACH, Calif. –  The stereotype of a homeless person is someone with a mental illness or substance-abuse issues panhandling on the corner. But an increasing number of homeless people are college students – with full class loads, part-time jobs and a degree in their near future.

“A lot of people are very surprised that we have students who are experiencing homelessness,” said Rashida Crutchfield, an expert on homelessness in higher education and an associate professor at California State University Long Beach. “I’ve talked to students who are living under bridges, in tents, in their cars. More often than not, students are couch surfing or dorm surfing, so moving constantly from place to place.”

Nowhere is the crisis greater than in California, a state with more than 2.5 million people enrolled in two- and four-year colleges. One in 5 of California’s community college students end up scrounging around for a place to rest their backpacks, take a shower and or call home. A disproportionate number of these housing-insecure students are Black, a result, experts say, of economic and social inequality in the state and around the country.

Take the case of Iona Lincoln, a 24-year-old single mom, who grew up in Long Beach, a city on the southwestern border of Los Angeles County, where Black people are three times more likely to be homeless than white people, a city study found this year.

In June 2021, she was living two hours away in Lancaster and decided she needed to split with the father of her young son, Dessiah, after she alleged he had physically abused her. (The allegations are part of their child custody case. He has not been charged.)

They had been renting space in a four-bedroom home there but had to leave after losing most of their belongings in a fire that started in another tenant’s room. Rather than find a new place in Lancaster, Lincoln returned to Long Beach with Dessiah and began working toward an associate degree in culinary arts at Long Beach City College. But her mother’s two-bedroom house was already crowded and she was reluctant to expose family members to the possibility that her ex would come looking for her there.

Iona Lincoln (center) currently splits her time living with her mom Tamara Lincoln (left) and grandmother to give her son Dessiah (right) a more stable living situation.

Julien James for Andscape

Thankfully, her mother, Tamara Lincoln, was working for a program operated by the Long Beach City College Foundation that helped her with vouchers to stay at local motels.

“We were in that situation when I was younger as well, living in hotels and stuff, so of course she knows exactly where I’m coming from and how it feels,” Iona Lincoln said.

She got a job in the school’s computer lab, but her hours were limited because few students were on campus. She applied for a Section 8 housing voucher to help her get her own apartment and pay the rent. She’s still waiting for that to go through, a process that can take months or even years. For now, she’s left the motels and decided it’s preferable to couch surf between her mother’s place and her grandmother’s while the child custody case makes its way through the court system.

Iona Lincoln is also trying to give back by volunteering to feed the homeless people who often congregate along the Pacific Coast Highway. Recently, she was packing up leftover tacos from a fundraiser. “I said, let’s not throw it all away because I know a bunch of other homeless people like right down the street that would love this meal tonight,” Lincoln said. “It’s good to be able to pass it on, too.”

She hopes to be able to get her degree in 2023, although she’s had to take a semester off to deal with some health issues.

“For a long time I wasn’t feeling like I was worthy of certain things or I felt low because of the situation I was placed in,” Iona Lincoln said. “Then seeing my son, I was able to hold on. I was able to have a purpose to be able to do something.

“I plan on graduating next year,” she said. “I’ll be completely healthy.” And, she said, she hopes that “me and my son, we’ll have a place we can call our own.”

Iona Lincoln (left) and Dessiah (right) splash in rain puddles in the courtyard of her mother Tamara Lincoln’s apartment on their way out for the day to run errands.

Julien James for Andscape

More than 1,040 students like Lincoln at Long Beach City College have requested housing aid since 2016, officials report. Of those, more than 40% have been Black, even though Black people make up only 11% of the 25,000-person student body. (Biracial students make up a little more than 5%.)

Crutchfield, the Cal State researcher, attributed the problem to a national housing crisis that has left America short nearly 4 million dwellings, with a particular deficit in affordable, multifamily units. Crutchfield also cited the high cost of living in California compared with most of the rest of the nation, as well as a stereotype of college students.

“There are times where students experience a particular discrimination in the housing market because there are presumptions about who they are as tenants,” she said. “And so sometimes students see escalated requests for rent simply because they are students and then we also know that Black folks can experience discrimination” as well in the housing market.

The issue of homeless students has confounded both education leaders and elected officials in California.

A UCLA study of enrollment in the 2018-19 school year found that more than 4 million students in the state, including both college and K-12, could be classified as poor. Based on the findings of multiple studies, California has about 360,000 community college students and about 58,000 at four-year colleges who are housing-insecure.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation allocating $1.4 billion to build more on-campus housing but most current students would be long gone from their campuses by the time it gets built later in the decade. And at the community-college level, Newsome’s legislation would add housing to only 12 of the system’s 116 campuses besides the 12 that currently have some housing.

Iona Lincoln is a student at Long Beach City College, where she hopes to obtain a culinary degree.

Julien James for Andscape

At Long Beach City College, surveys show 6% to 10% of students are housing insecure, meaning those people are “either homeless, sleeping in a garage, sleeping on a couch, sleeping in their car,” said Uduak-Joe Ntuk, president of the Long Beach Community College board of trustees. “We have, from time to time, students sleeping on campus unauthorized. We don’t have student housing, we don’t have dorms or bungalows. We don’t have anywhere officially to house students.”

The college has access to about $70 million in bond proceeds to spend on housing, Ntuk said, but it won’t significantly impact the student homelessness problem in the near term. So they are experimenting with short-term measures while still looking for long-term solutions, he said.

The college has two campuses lined with palm trees: the Liberal Arts Campus on 112 acres north of Interstate 405 in the middle of the city; and the Pacific Coast Campus five miles away in a commercial area off East Pacific Coast Highway. Under the leadership of superintendent-president Mike Munoz, the school started a pilot program on the Pacific Coast Campus that allows some students to park overnight. They also have a relatively new after-school child care program, which has been an important resource for students who are moms.

“Long Beach has been the pilot for almost every program out here that people can think of,” said Tamara Lincoln, who also has a 21-year-old son attending the school. “We’ve always shown a way to make this work.”

The first homeless person to receive aid from the Long Beach foundation was Majeedah Wesley, who was 18 when she moved 400 miles from the Bay Area to pursue an associate degree at the school. She wanted to leave an environment in which she says her mother was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of a partner.

A relative in Long Beach had assured her he’d put up rent-free, but that lasted only a few months.

“He was like, ‘Hey, you gotta start paying me this amount of money,’ ” Wesley recalled recently. “ ‘I used to get this much rent for this room, so you need to start paying me this much money.’ It was way more than what I was getting as a college student. And so I was like, ‘I cannot afford that.’ And I was told, ‘OK, by Sunday you need to be out.’ ”

Wesley had a job on campus and was vice president of the student government. But there were no youth homeless shelters in Long Beach. She managed to get a bed at Covenant House, a shelter in Hollywood, but it was a 2½-hour commute from the campus and her classroom attendance began falling off. She had to explain her predicament to one of her professors, who, with Wesley’s permission, shared the story with Sunny Zia, a board trustee who had been trying to understand the housing-insecurity issue on campus.

Iona Lincoln (right) eats breakfast with her son Dessiah (left).

Julien James for Andscape

“And I reached out to Majeedah,” Zia said. “She opened up to me. And the reason the faculty member found out was because Majeedah had to let her know that her shelter’s curfew doesn’t allow her to make it to class because she was commuting two hours to the shelter in Hollywood, two hours back. … So that just really tore at my heartstrings and I’m like, ‘This is just unacceptable.’ ”

Wesley had started to show the signs of being housing-insecure, such as carrying around more belongings than needed at a time. And she noticed many of her peers were doing the same thing, which made her realize the homeless issue was bigger than what she was experiencing.

“I’m seeing these people come to school with huge backpacks on or always tired or sleeping, or things like that,” she said.

She began asking her classmates questions.

“They would say, ‘Oh, I’m not homeless but I sleep on my friend’s couch.’ Or. ‘I’m not homeless, but I’m living in a house with this guy and he’s physically abusing me.’ And I’m like, ‘That seems homeless to me because some nights you’re sleeping outside, some nights you’re sleeping inside.’ Some people would say they’re not homeless, but they sleep in their car. I would say maybe 10 to 20% of the students that I was meeting on campus were like that.”

Counselors at Covenant House referred her to a youth mental-health program in Long Beach, which would allow her to get an apartment with 12 months paid rent if accepted. Zia wrote her a letter of recommendation. In 2015, Zia and another trustee, Virginia Baxter, started the Helping Homeless Students Fund through the school’s foundation, which gave Wesley a stipend to cover her living expenses. (The foundation then hired Tamara Lincoln to be the liaison for the housing part of the program.)

Wesley got her associate degree from Long Beach and moved on to Texas Southern University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance. Today, she is a senior compliance and ethics specialist for Blue Shield of California.

Iona Lincoln (left) takes her son Dessiah (right) to the Ferris wheel at the Pike Outlets. Mother and child spent the day together at the outlets with Lincoln’s mother, running errands and spending their free day together.

Julien James for Andscape

John Salcedo was an Army veteran who had worked on hazmat response and environmental compliance in the military and then as a private contractor in the Middle East. But a bad reaction to an anthrax vaccine led to health problems that complicated his adjustment back to civilian life. By 2015, when the Helping Homeless Students Fund was getting off the ground, he was sleeping in his 20-year-old Dodge Neon while trying to attend classes at Long Beach. He was ready to ditch school and move to Arizona, hoping for a new start.

One bitterly cold day that October, his car failed to start after a night class. With the wind blowing in off the Pacific Ocean, Salcedo curled up in the back seat and covered himself with a blanket to make it look as if no one was inside the car. Students call it “car camping.”

“I camouflaged myself so good that the Long Beach Police that patrol the campus did not detect me in the car,” recalled Salcedo, now 49.

“I woke up with a parking ticket,” he said. “Car broken down. No money. I mean, it literally felt like a movie scene. But having the soldier mentality, I saw it as being out in the battlefield.”

Dispirited, he happened to pick up a copy of the student newspaper, The Viking News, which had an article about Zia and the new homeless initiative. Salcedo called her. Within a week, he met with Baxter, who had a check for him. But she didn’t give it to him right away.

“She didn’t let it go,” said Salcedo. “And she just looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Don’t let me down!’ I’ll never forget those words.”

The check was for $2,500. Of that, $1,800 went for Salcedo’s first month’s rent and deposit on an apartment. The remaining $700 paid for repairs to the Neon. It was the help Salcedo needed to jump-start his life. He’s now a filmmaker who focuses on the plight of veterans as well as Mexican American issues. He finished his associate degree at the community college and thebn transferred to Cal State Long Beach, graduating with a bachelor’s degree last year.

After the challenges and trauma that Iona Lincoln (right) has survived in the last few years, caring for and providing a good life for her son Dessiah (left) is her main focus.

Julien James for Andscape

If Salcedo’s car had broken down on campus today, chances are he wouldn’t have been ticketed. The school now allows some students to sleep in their cars through its Safe Parking Program.

The idea of allowing students to sleep in their cars started in 2019 with an assemblyman in another part of the state, Marc Berman of Palo Alto. One of Berman’s interns had told him about a friend attending community college who had tried to sleep in his car at school but was kicked off campus.

Berman introduced a bill requiring community colleges to make parking structures available to homeless students who sleep in cars. Pushback to the plan was swift, including from some fellow legislators and community colleges in his district.

“They were worried that by letting a couple dozen homeless students sleep in their cars that it was going to increase drug use and crime and that was sad,” he said.

He pulled the bill. But it prompted the legislature to create a requirement that all community colleges consolidate services to help students struggling with a lack of food, tuition money, mental-health services, transportation, and other basic needs. The state has allocated $70 million for these programs in the past two years, Berman said, adding, “That’s a much more long-term solution.”

Long Beach City College created its safe parking program under its Basic Needs Office in the fall of 2021 even though the state wasn’t requiring it.

On a recent Thursday at 5 a.m., it was still dark as a half dozen cars parked on the first floor of the well-lit garage on the Pacific Coast campus. The lot comes complete with solar panels on the roof and charging stations. Students have access to restrooms and showers. Inside those vehicles were several people who were still sleeping.

Ntuk, the board president, said a school survey showed Long Beach had about 70 homeless students sleeping in their cars last year. When the Safe Parking Program started, the school sent an email to all 25,000 students and 13 joined the program.

Ntuk said Long Beach City College isn’t worried about safety issues related to the Safe Parking Program. He has faith that students would prefer not to sleep in their cars if they had other options.

“And that we’re trying to provide avenues for them to get out and to get into more stable housing,” Ntuk said.

Dwayne Bray is a senior writer for Andscape. He writes about topics ranging from general sports to race relations to poverty. He previously ran ESPN television’s award-winning investigative team and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.