By Let’s Go Basic Needs Fellow: Krystal Mae Raynes

College: Cal State University Bakersfield

In many parts of Bakersfield, we see homeless people push shopping carts and hold cardboard signs on street medians. Sometimes, we assume that these people have made bad decisions in their life and that their living situation is their fault. This image and assumption are what many people think of when talking about the topic of homelessness. However, homelessness has many faces; and today, many of them are college students, like me. 

College homelessness looks different from the textbook example we usually think of. College students usually experience homelessness when they find themselves sleeping in their cars or “couch surfing” – borrowing friends’ or families’ extra futons or couches for a week or two and then having to find another place to stay at. Both these situations fall under the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homelessness, which includes “youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”. Dr. Jason Watkins, Assistant Director of Basic Needs for California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB), describes student homelessness as “not making bad choices,” but as “a set of bad circumstances.”

Many college students in Bakersfield are first-generation or low-income – 65% CSUB students and 55% of Bakersfield College undergraduate students are on Pell Grant, a federal grant awarded to students who display exceptional financial need. According to a survey conducted by CSUB’s division of Student Affairs during the winter of 2020, about 7% of students – or approximately 770 students – faced homelessness. I am one of those students. As a CSUB student who has couch-surfed more than a few times during her college career, Dr. Watkin’s statements ring true with me. My first run-in with homelessness began because of an abusive household situation, and it took a few tries to get permanent housing. In the summer of 2020, I had to utilize CSUB’s emergency housing program for a month to get back on my feet. That time was absolutely critical to get me connected to the on-campus food pantry, mental health services, and fixed housing. Without it, I most likely would have had to drop out of school and delay my degree. In Dr. Watkins’ experience, the causes of homelessness in students are usually caused by instability in the home due to abuse or sudden changes to roommates’ contributions to rent. Dr. Watkins recalled an instance where a student had to utilize CSUB’s emergency housing because all of his roommates decided to move back home during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving him without a means to pay a full bill of rent. 

Although CSUB provides emergency housing and a meal plan for up to 30 days in their dormitories, students with families or pets fall through the cracks. In the short term, CSUB is looking to expand its hotel voucher program for students that wouldn’t be able to stay in the residence halls. The most important solution is within the community. Bakersfield residents can donate to CSUB’s emergency fund but most importantly, they can choose to support more affordable housing for college students. 

If students drop out due to homelessness, we lose on shared prosperity for our region. An economic impact report generated by the California State University system cited that in 2019, San Joaquin Valley CSU alumni generated $521 million in state and local tax revenue. When homelessness affects our students due to circumstances out of their control, it becomes our community’s loss. We need to understand the value of investing in affordable housing for our students, the majority of whom stay in Bakersfield and contribute to our growing economy.