The Coast News Group

Homeless community college student overnight parking bill shelved

REGION — The California Legislature has shelved a state bill aiming to make community college parking lots available for overnight parking as the 2019 session comes to an end.

That bill, AB 302, had received the advocacy support of Palomar College’s Associated Student Government, as well as the support of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. But amendments placed into the bill by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) proved a bridge too far for the legislation’s author, Assemblyman Mark Berman (D-Palo Alto), who decided to make it a “two-year bill” for potential reconsideration in 2020. Often, that designation means a slow death for legislation in Sacramento.

The death knell of the bill came after lobbying by entities such as the Association of California Community College Administrators, the California College and University Police Chiefs Association, the Community College League of California, the School Excess Liability Fund and others, according to disclosure forms reviewed by The Coast News.

“I was sad to see the details of the amendments that were forced into AB 302 by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which indicate a lack of urgency in addressing the community college student homelessness crisis in California and unnecessarily further a stigma that prevents them from seeking help,” Berman said in a press release. “Though neither a permanent nor perfect solution, AB 302 would have, in its previous form, provided meaningful security for thousands of homeless community college students whose only reliable shelter is their car. Without a safe place to go at night, these students are forced into dark alleyways and industrial parks, where they are most vulnerable to harm.”

Berman, in particular, knocked a provision added in which would have exempted community colleges sitting within 250 feet of an elementary school from AB 302. He also pinpointed several other opt-out clauses which he called problematic.

“Homeless students are not pedophiles that need to be kept away from children,” said Berman. “They are men and women — many of them barely adults themselves — who are trying to improve their lives by obtaining a better education. They should be celebrated, not stigmatized.”

The opt-out clauses for colleges in the latest version of the bill include the college paying for student hotel vouchers, having a campus officer who can offer external resource referrals or “Emergency grants that are necessary to secure, or prevent the imminent loss of, housing.”

Anthony White, a Palomar College student who has lobbied for AB 302 and for the community college to implement its own homeless student parking lot program, said he sees all of the opt-out clauses as problematic because he believes tackling homelessness does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. But he believes at least one of those solutions for homeless community college students is having a safe place to sleep at night, and in their cars, if they own them.

Because of the new language in the bill, though, White said he no longer supports AB 302 in its current form.

“I realized that really, the whole intent of the bill had pretty much been ripped apart,” said White. “The teeth of the bill, the thing that would have really made a difference in a lot of people’s lives had been taken out.”

White also found another provision in the latest version of the bill, the 2023 sunset date and the law not going into effect until 2021, troubling.

“They gave it a two-year life because they want to be able to reflect on things,” said White. “Well OK, well while you’re reflecting, where are the students going to sleep?”

One of the more vocal opponents of the bill was MiraCosta College, whose flagship campus is in Oceanside. Charlie Ng — vice president of Human Resources MiraCosta — sits on the board of directors of the Association of California Community College Administrators, which lobbied against the bill. Ng is also an alternate on the board of directors of the Schools Excess Liability Fund, another entity which lobbied against the bill.

Kristen Huyck, MiraCosta College’s director of Public and Governmental Relations, pointed to a June 19 letter written by MiraCosta College President Sunita Cooke in response to a request for comment about why the college opposed AB 302 in its original form.

“By requiring all community colleges, regardless of geographic location, to establish quasi-living facilities for students living in their car, AB 302 creates an extraneous liability for California community colleges,” Cooke wrote in that letter. “The mandate to use parking lots as living establishments for homeless students, and in some cases their children, does not take into account local responsibility to adequately address the sanitation, public safety needs, and enforcement that will be required to maintain order for our homeless students, the general student population, and college faculty and staff.”

Palomar College also had two connections to entities which lobbied against AB 302. Palomar College Board of Governors member Mark Evilsizer serves on the board of directors of the Community College League of California. The college is also a member of the California College and University Police Chiefs Association.

Palomar College did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Larry Gailizio, the president and CEO of the Community College League of California, said the organization opposes the bill because it does not serve as a systemic fix to the issue of student homelessness. He also clarified that Evilsizer joined the League’s board after it had already staked out its position on AB 302.

“While this bill is presented as a short-term solution to the state’s housing problem, unfortunately neither the bill as written nor the author make any attempts to explore a long-term solution to students’ affordability and housing problems,” he told The Coast News. “The Legislature can instead update and reform the state’s financial aid system, the Cal Grant Program, so that it recognizes the reality of total cost of attendance for community college students where close to 90% of the cost of attendance is for housing, transportation, childcare, textbooks and other non-tuition costs.”

Berman referred to the Community College League as the “main opponent to the bill throughout the process” of negotiating over the proposed legislation. Berman added that he hopes to find a state legislative fix on the issue of student homelessness going forward.

“My office and I worked closely with a number of current and former community college students this year, some of whom had personally experienced homelessness,” Berman said. “I plan to continue working with these students and others to find an approach that will help alleviate the student homelessness crisis that too many California students are experiencing every night.”