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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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The events hosted by Sanchez Pillot Saavedra and her fellow classmates get about 250 people a month, not just students. People from all over the community come to get food — including members of the college's faculty and staff. The pantry also incorporates education, working with the school's nutrition class to create recipes and cookbooks with ingredients available at the pantry. Some volunteers bring food home to their families. Many students not only lack financial support from their parents, but are relied upon for support themselves.

Part of the problem with financial aid, volunteer Enya Daang said, is that many students are unable to apply for it. So in addition to offering food and sometimes clothing or other necessities, the Chabot pop-ups sometimes have tables from the college's financial aid office and various campus organizations. "A lot of students start their financial aid packet, but don't finish it for some reason," Daang said. "Like they get stuck on a question and they just get discouraged. So we have people from the financial aid office come table."

Both Daang and Sanchez Pillot Saavedra have now transferred to UC Berkeley where they are full-time students. But they also work other jobs, including at Chabot. The Chabot pantry, as well as those at UC Berkeley and the Peralta colleges, are supported heavily by the Alameda County Food Bank. The Food Bank not only provides food, but offers nutritional education and outreach to help people sign up for CalFresh, California's food stamp program, which many students qualify for. "Students suffer as much as every race or demographic we have out there," a Food Bank manager said.

Contra Costa College has had its own pantry since 2017, which is primarily supported by the Contra Costa County Food Bank. Alumnus and former student life coordinator Joel Nicholson-Shanks is proud of the college's program, particularly its free breakfast program, which provides food for students cooked by students, not offered anywhere else. College administrators have been supportive, he said, never so much as suggesting that a food pantry might not be necessary. But there was some initial difficulty getting students to come in. "We thought students would rush in," Nicholson-Shanks recalled. "We were wrong." Noting that there was a lot of stigma about having to ask for free food, he and his colleagues made an effort to break down students' attitudes regarding the shelter. Nicholson-Shanks was motivated by his personal experience. "There were times when I went to bed hungry when I was in college," he said.

The college also adopted measures for students whose housing situation made it hard for them to keep up their personal hygiene. The school now opens its locker rooms for the homeless to use for a period each day. "We've had homeless folks around the campus probably for the last ten years or more," said Buildings and Grounds Manager Bruce King. "I think we have a population of about ten or fifteen that live in the general vicinity of our campus." He said he has a soft spot for them when they run into each other at the student lounge.

The nonprofit group Safe Time focuses on housing homeless youth, specifically students, through a home-sharing program. Hosts in the East Bay take in college students for one to six months at a time from a variety of schools including Holy Names, UC Berkeley, Mills, and the Peralta colleges. Safe Time's Director of College Placements, Christi Carpenter, believes low-income students have great potential if they can access a high education. "I feel like they are actually the most promising leaders," she said. "They have the opposite of entitlement. I think they tend to be resourceful and creative and very hardworking and take their education very seriously."

"Sarah," a Safe Time student concerned that she might lose her job if identified by her actual name, is currently living in the East Bay and attending Cal. She is an international student who cannot go back to her home country because it is unsafe, and has no family here to help her. This spring, Sarah had to take out loans for school and could not afford rent. "I went to the dean's office and they told me if I don't get a chance with Safe Time I'm going to have to go to a shelter. That was scary. ... I can work but my salary is not enough to pay for rent." 

Luckily, Sarah has been able to obtain temporary housing through Safe Time. She works long hours, but has not been able to find a job in her field. At the time of this interview, Sarah had to find other housing soon, but did not know yet where she would go. "Academics comes second, because first you have to have a place to live in — and then you can worry about your grades and stuff."Another organization devoted solely to housing homeless youth in the East Bay is the Youth Spirit Artworks Tiny House project. Youth Spirit Artworks participants recently appeared at the Berkeley and Oakland City Council meetings seeking for funding for their tiny house project. The village will be built on the property of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in East Oakland, where the first 12 houses are scheduled to be open in December. Assistant Project Director Reginald Gentry said the group can cheaply build about one tiny house per week if they put in the time. "Some people are living as though their ketchup needs to be gourmet ketchup," Director Sally Herships said. "And other people are looking for ketchup bottles out of dumpsters." 

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