With rising tuition and living costs rendering it difficult for lower-income students throughout California to afford stable housing, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state legislature are combating California’s homelessness epidemic among college students. Senate Bill 568, written earlier this year, would establish a “college-focused rapid rehousing” program, requiring campuses that receive state funding to work with a homeless service agency to provide students access to local housing. While the bill ultimately stalled in the state legislature, the momentum it created across the state prompted Newsom to allocate a record $52.9 million to combat homelessness, housing insecurity and hunger on California’s public university and community college campuses — with the exception of private universities like USC.
Because USC does not receive state funding, the University is not affected by the recent flurry of activity in Sacramento. The issue’s prominence presents the opportunity to raise awareness and promote dialogue regarding student homelessness at USC. Homelessness is an issue that impacts the most vulnerable in our community, further highlighting the dichotomy between the University’s vast resources and the struggles its low-income students face.
While student homelessness is not regularly acknowledged by much of the USC community, former USG Director of Community and External Affairs Mai Mizuno relayed to HuffPost that “a significant amount — an alarming amount — of students said they faced an issue of homelessness in the last year” based on an exploratory survey distributed to some students, though no concrete numbers have been released.
According to a 2018 study by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, college students affected by homelessness devote as much time, on average, to class and studying as their peers who are not affected by homelessness. However, according to lead researcher Sara Golrick-Rab, they also “work more, they commute more, spend more time taking care of other people and they sleep less,” resulting in weaker average academic performance and lower graduation rates than the rest of the nation’s student population.
No student at any university should face homelessness or housing insecurity, but the problem seems particularly egregious at USC considering the wealth associated with the University and its community. In recent years, USC has regularly secured annual fundraising hauls in the hundreds of millions. The University has implemented some programs to serve the students affected by homelessness, such as the USC Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness, which is aimed to address general homelessness in Los Angeles but also listed responding to USC student needs as one of its goals. Additionally, Trojan Shelter, a home for college students experiencing housing insecurity, only houses 12 students per school year.
A major issue thwarting universities’ attempts to address homelessness on their campuses is that homeless students often feel ashamed of their plight, resulting in an aversion to seeking help and taking advantage of available resources. This phenomenon is likely magnified at USC, where low-income students’ modest lifestyles are contrasted by some of their peers’ staggering wealth; it is not difficult to imagine that students affected by homelessness fears of stigmatization are heightened in this environment. To mitigate this problem, campus leaders and high-profile administrative officials must acknowledge that student homelessness is a problem at USC and unequivocally state that the University community is supportive of homeless students and the campus resources available to them.
According to student testimonies published in an April HuffPost article about the USC homeless student population, some students resort to sleeping in USC Leavey Library if they cannot find a spot on a friend’s couch. The fact that California lawmakers are taking concerted action to combat the homelessness problem in state universities and community colleges should motivate USC, with its superior per capita financial resources, to support its homeless student population in a similarly dedicated manner. With tuition and housing costs rising, the University must address housing insecurity among students affected by homelessness.