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Letting Homeless Students Sleep on Campus—In Their Cars

Opponents of the bill said it's a short-term fix that ignores larger problems of inequity in education.

Opponents of the bill said it's a short-term fix that ignores larger problems of inequity in education. Shutterstock

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Connecting state and local government leaders

A bill in the California State Legislature would require community colleges to allow many homeless students to sleep in their cars in campus parking lots.

Homeless community college students would be able to sleep in their cars on campus under a proposed bill making its way through the California State Legislature.

The bill, which passed the state Assembly 60-8 in May, requires any community college with parking facilities on campus to provide overnight access to enrolled students in good standing who are taking at least six units per semester. 

The measure is not intended as a long-term solution for homelessness among students in California, according to Assemblyman Marc Berman, a Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor. But with the problem of students without shelter at a “crisis point”—19 percent of community college students in California experienced homelessness in the previous year, according to a March report—it’s a move that could help, he said.

“The safety of our students warrants immediate attention,” he said in a statement. “While we work towards the long term solution of building more housing, this is a significant step we can take to ensure that the tens of thousands of homeless students living out of their cars have a safe place to sleep at night.”

The measure has broad support in the legislature but has faced opposition from a handful of education organizations, including the Community College League of California and the Association of California Community College Administrators. The bill, opponents said, is too broad for a school system as diverse as California’s, where campuses differ greatly in their size and the resources they can provide students.

“Our colleges are already launching initiatives to help homeless students and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mandate does not make sense for the diverse community college system and would result in significant incurred costs and increased liability implications,” Susan K. Bray, executive director of the Association of California Community College Administrators, wrote in a letter opposing the bill.

By excluding four-year universities, the measure also exacerbates existing inequities in education, according to Dr. Carole Goldsmith, president of Fresno City College.

“By only requiring the bill for community colleges and not CSU or UC campuses, it sends the message that living in parking lots is good enough for our students, but certainly couldn’t be endured by UC or CSU students,” Goldsmith wrote in an op-ed in the Fresno Bee. “The truth is, every student in our state deserves better. No human being should have to resort to sleep in their car in a parking lot. We can and must do better for our students who, we must remember, are our future.”

Lawmakers in the state Senate amended the bill to address some of those concerns, including a sunset date at the end of 2022 and exempting community colleges that enact other programs to address student homelessness, including emergency housing grants, hotel vouchers and rapid rehousing referral services. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and goes next to the appropriations committee. If passed, community colleges would have to implement the overnight parking requirements by April 1, 2020.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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