A Place to Call Home – and to Study

Cerritos College has opened a 28-bed housing development for homeless students as part of an initiative to help them complete their studies and earn associate degrees.

June 15, 2020
 
Cerritos College
The Village, a housing development for homeless students at Cerritos College

Kaylah Parard, 24, was one of the first students to move into a new housing development for homeless students two weeks ago at Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, Calif. It is the first housing development in the state designated for homeless students.

Parard’s new bedroom in The Village, an off-campus residence, which is fully funded by Cerritos, has allowed her to “get my life together” and focus on finishing the final year of her education and earning an associate degree. She became homeless in January when her grandmother, whom Parard lived with, moved into a health-care facility, leaving Parard couch surfing at friends’ houses, sleeping in cars or “hopping around wherever I could” for about five months. Going home to live with her mother and younger siblings was not an option; she has been estranged from them since she came out as lesbian five years ago.

“We were homeless from the time I was 7 to the time I was 13,” Parard said of the time she lived with her family.

Now that she has a place to call home, Parard said she can concentrate on her studies.

“Once you get that housing situation and you’re not worried about where you’re going to lay your head at night, you can focus on everything else.”

The Village, which is within walking distance of Cerritos, will house up to 28 students ages 18 to 25. It was developed in partnership with Jovenes Inc., a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that assists homeless youth and those with unstable housing situations. It has an existing program that offers rent subsidies to college students, including some at Cerritos. Students such as Parard who demonstrate a critical housing need will live in The Village for free, while other students will pay a rate of $200 to $300 per month, which is significantly less than the average cost of living in Los Angeles County, said Andrea Marchetti, executive director of Jovenes.

Cerritos spent less than $4 million on the purchase and development of the property, which was funded through the college's general fund, said Jose Fierro, president of Cerritos. The development is made up of seven town houses, six of which have three bedrooms and three bathrooms. Jovenes holds the lease on the development and will provide on-site property management as well as social and advising services to help students with independent living. The college already has mental health counseling and academic advising, which students in The Village have access to and will be encouraged to use, Fierro said.

“The main intent of the project is to improve the life of students,” Fierro said. “If they don’t have a house, even the smartest of students will underperform … The second intent is to create a model that will show it’s possible to have housing that is specifically focused on students that are home insecure without running in the red. We do this by pooling resources together from agencies.”

A #RealCollege 2019 survey of Cerritos by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 55 percent of students identified as housing insecure and 15 percent said they experienced homelessness in the last year, according to the college. It was clear that the affordable-housing crisis in California was directly impacting students even though traditional college-aged people were not typically considered by policy makers and government administrators in public discussions about homelessness, Fierro said.

Through its own work supporting homeless and housing-insecure college students beginning in 2016, Jovenes found that graduation rates for these students were in the single digits and they were taking five to 10 years to earn associate degrees, Marchetti said. Providing such vulnerable students with housing is an investment in their future and can reduce the number of people who end up homeless in the long term, he said.

Marchetti believes college leaders should rethink and refocus their housing models, or lack thereof, to provide for students in need. Jovenes is developing similar partnerships with other colleges in California, including Long Beach City College, Cal State Long Beach and Cal Poly Pomona, he said.

“For the population that we serve, higher education is the way out of homelessness,” Marchetti said. “With higher education, there’s an opportunity to get a living wage, not just jumping from fast food chain to fast food chain.”

Community colleges were largely "reluctant" to develop residential housing because most of them wrongly assumed students had homes and were able to commute to their classes, Marchetti said. This was clearly not the case, and the low graduation rates of homeless college students illustrated that their lack of housing "was really a critical situation," he said.

Other community colleges also have partnerships with outside agencies or intend to build facilities to respond to student homelessness, including in Los Angeles and other areas that have experienced significant rent hikes over the last decade. Compton Community College in Compton, Calif., has plans to develop residential housing for its students, 68 percent of whom told the same 2019 #RealCollege survey that they experienced housing insecurity. And when the cost of housing in Tacoma, Wash., shot up in 2014 due to the IT boom in Seattle, Tacoma Community College created a partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide homeless or near-homeless students with federal rental assistance vouchers.

Parard, who has settled into her new place at The Village, compared her experience to living in a traditional dorm room -- she shares a bedroom and bathroom with two other students and Jovenes staff members check in with her like a resident assistant would, she said. The different apartment units are even named after two of Los Angeles’s top college teams, the University of California, Los Angeles, Bruins and the University of Southern California Trojans, Parard said.

“They didn’t just want us to be ‘house A’ and ‘house B,’ so we’re the Bruins and they’re the Trojans,” she said. “Even though I’m a diehard USC fan.”

The Jovenes and Cerritos partnership will also expand beyond The Village, through a new pilot program for homeless and housing-insecure students who are above the age requirement of The Village and those who have children, Fierro said. A $2.1 million grant from the California Community College system will help fund the program, as well as Cerritos’s efforts to secure more properties for student housing, he said. The system’s chancellor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, awarded the grant to Cerritos last year to further address the issue of homelessness among students at Cerritos, one of the five largest community colleges in Los Angeles.

“This is exactly what community colleges do -- they respond to the needs of the community,” Oakley said during The Village’s grand opening event June 11. “This project is a clear indicator of what we can do, how we can lean in and be creative, not wait for Sacramento to solve problems, but act locally.”

While Parard’s work-study job at a nearby elementary school was cut off in June because of COVID-19, she’s hopeful she will be able to pay for her room at The Village once she’s able to find a stable job. Her ultimate goal is to transfer to a university to study nursing. Parard is also working on getting back in touch with her mother through a family reconnection program provided by Jovenes. She said she wanted to set an example for her younger siblings by earning her degree.

“I know there’s no other option,” Parard said. “I have to show them that this is where it’s at.”

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