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In School, On the Street

Homelessness and hunger afflict a surprisingly large number of college and university students.

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Like Prado, many students facing homelessness look at college as a means to get ahead. "Education is a pathway out of poverty," said Shahera Hyatt, the Director of the California Homeless Youth Project. "Our earnings are going to be so much greater over our lifetime if we are able to have not just a high school diploma but a Bachelors Degree or even higher. So we know that having low-wage jobs won't get anybody out of poverty, in fact it really keeps people in poverty. ... It's a small investment for a long-term gain. And it's not even just for that one person, it's for all of society." After all, noted Hyatt, who was a homeless student herself from middle school until her time at American River College, dropping out of college to work will not necessarily save students from homelessness. 

"It truly opened my future to earning in a completely different income bracket and escaping poverty," said "Steve," who suffered from hunger and housing insecurity as a Cal student but now works as an associate scientist at an accredited nanotechnology company. "And the name brand Berkeley certainly goes a long way." The graduate of Cal's esteemed Department of Chemistry asked not to be identified so that his former struggles with homelessness do not affect his career.

Steve said he barely graduated, but not because he was a bad student. "My first semester, I was pretty sure that I was going to drop out." The 2008 recession had been hard on his family, which lost its house in Sacramento, where he first attended community college. After being accepted to UC Berkeley on a full ride, he recalled being "super excited." But his excitement quickly turned to fear when he was housed with a violent and mentally ill roommate, which prompted him to leave his apartment, where he believed he was unsafe. Then his scholarship checks got held up until the end of the first semester. So for several months, he couch-surfed. He said he nearly spent some nights in the library, and even considered a homeless shelter, until the shelter tragically burned down. "That is a reality for a lot of students their entire time at Berkeley," he said.

Berkeley resident Aidan Hill started attending UC Berkeley in 2016, but cannot afford to finish and graduate. While at UC Berkeley, Hill worked three jobs, and had already gotten an associates degree from River City College. After being harassed for their sexual orientation while living in the UC Berkeley dorms, Hill was unable to find other affordable housing. In 2017, Hill was displaced from UC Berkeley and ended up homeless and couch surfing, afraid to visit a homeless shelter. Dropping out was not a good option for Hill, who returned to Berkeley for sanctuary, not having another safe place to go back to. "I want to finish what I started," Hill said. "If they didn't want students like me who are reliant on the state ... then they shouldn't have accepted us in the first place."

Now at the age of 26, Hill speaks out against the school's failure to help students access their education. After running for city council in 2018, Hill has attended Berkeley City Council meetings, speaking out for the rights of homeless people. Hill hopes to finish school some day.

Struggling students and their allies are attempting to combat their problems in a variety of innovative ways — from opening food pantries and partnering with school nutrition programs to building tiny houses and providing homeless students access to locker rooms for showering. But the numbers of homeless youth in the Bay Area have only increased over the last several years. It is not a problem that any one organization or person can fix. 

To augment the problem of hunger amongst college students, food pantries have cropped up at almost every East Bay college including: UC Berkeley, Mills College, Berkeley City College, Merritt College, Laney College, Contra Costa College, and Chabot College. Canedo founded Cal's pantry in 2013. During the 2017-2018 school year, it served about 5,000 students.

At Chabot College in Hayward, students have been organizing farmers-market-style food pantry pop-ups since 2017. Now they are cultivating a garden that includes edibles for students to cook with and expanding to a basic needs center dubbed the "life pantry," which will have its own building. "One of the first things that we try to do is reduce the stigma of coming to get free food," said Chabot graduate and pantry founder Sofia Sanchez Pillot Saavedra, noting that everyone is welcome without requirements. "I wish that we didn't need this. I wish people weren't going hungry but it's a reality. ... If our students aren't well fed, they're not learning and they're not graduating and they're dropping out and essentially the college loses money. ... A lot of our students are in poverty and on top of that you add the fact that you have a very different demographic of the kind of student that goes to a community college vs. the student that goes straight to a four year."

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