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Many colleges lack the tools to capture exactly how many of their students are currently homeless or displaced and facing housing instability. Courtesy photo
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Tackling the ‘invisibility’ of homeless college students 

REGION — Homelessness is considered a crisis in San Diego County, but it extends far into the county’s communities — particularly among college students.

Many colleges lack the tools to capture exactly how many of their students are currently homeless or displaced and facing housing instability. MiraCosta is one of those colleges, according to former student Heather Sorgine.

“Without this data, we are unable to understand the scope of the issue,” Sorgine wrote in her final recommendation to the college from her social justice research fellowship. “Unaddressed, these students will continue to suffer, unaided, and the school administration will continue to believe students are being adequately served by existing programs.”

Sorgine said she was one of a few select students with the purpose of “researching challenges faced by specific populations and devising recommendations for how MiraCosta can address these challenges.”

According to a study published in early 2018 by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36 percent of college students say they are food insecure, another 36 percent are housing insecure and 9 percent are homeless.

A 2016 California State University Long Beach study of 23 campuses found that 10,000 students in California identified as independent homeless youth on their Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA) in 2013-2014. The study suggests those statistics are likely lower than reported because students either don’t know their designation, are unwilling to designate themselves as homeless, or become homeless after they complete the FAFSA.

In the 2014-2015 school year, 37.4 percent of MiraCosta College students qualified as economically disadvantaged. These students, according to Sorgine, are the students most likely to experience homelessness, displacement or food insecurity.

“The symptoms of poverty cannot be divorced from one another,” Sorgine said.

Sorgine gave the college four recommendations on what can be done to address the issues economically disadvantaged students often face. Those recommendations included increased access to food, housing and other institutional support services; an on-campus community kitchen; a student-led community outreach initiative through service learning projects; and ongoing student discussions for developing new ideas in regular meetings that serve as a student space.

Sorgine knows a thing or two about what it’s like to face housing insecurity as a college student. When she returned to school a few years ago after being laid off, she had to make a choice: either pay rent or continue to pay for her car. She chose the latter, reasoning that she could couch surf with her car as a backup place to sleep. During that time, Sorgine met many other students in similar situations as her.

Sorgine said she fortunately never had to sleep in her car and has since gotten out of her displacement situation. She said she has stepped away from her studies for now to focus on her work with a local nonprofit organization.

Sorgine gave her recommendations to the college about two years ago. Around the same time, the Homelessness, Displacement, and Food Insecurity workgroup was created.

Nick Mortaloni, interim dean of Student Life & Judicial Affairs at MiraCosta who also serves as the workgroup’s chair, described it as a “multi-disciplinary team” with representation from various campus departments collaborating together to help students facing homelessness, housing and food insecurity.

Mortaloni said the college offers daily access to a food pantry, showers and hygiene kits. It also offers medical and mental health services for all enrolled students, financial literacy workshops, a monthly farmers market, opportunities to apply for CalFresh, monthly dental screenings and connections to off-campus resources.

According to Mortaloni, MiraCosta is also in the process of creating a “Campus Assessment, Resources and Education (CARE) program.”

“The CARE Manager and their team will support holistic student development and success by leading efforts that address basic student needs such as homelessness and displacement, food insecurity, legal aid, financial literacy, childcare, and transportation,” Mortaloni said via email.

As the interim service learning coordinator, Bea Palmer oversees the experiential form of education that meshes academics and community service together. Students will learn through working with any of MiraCosta’s more than 150 partner organizations.

“They can apply their course content while they’re giving back to the community and meeting the needs of our community,” Palmer said.

Operation HOPE-Vista is one of the more popular service learning sites, according to Palmer, who also serves as Operation HOPE’s board secretary. Operation HOPE is a shelter that houses mostly single women and families. Some of the shelter’s residents also happen to be MiraCosta students or students at other community colleges.

For some students, working at a site like Operation HOPE opens their eyes to the reality of their own struggles with housing and food insecurity. Palmer said the work “destigmatizes” homelessness in this way.

Palmer also experienced homelessness and housing insecurity as a young child and as an adult. Palmer said she was fortunate that during those times her family had resources that gave them places to stay, but acknowledged that not everyone experiencing homelessness is as fortunate as she was.

According to Palmer, housing insecurity includes a wide spectrum of different experiences.

“It could be that this student is couch surfing or staying in their car,” she said. “It’s not always living in the bush under a bridge. It might be this month they can afford rent and the next month they don’t have rent.”

Palmer, like Sorgine and Mortaloni, is a member of the Homelessness, Displacement, and Food Insecurity workgroup at MiraCosta.

Anthony White is another former MiraCosta student who experienced homelessness. He originally moved to Southern California in 2011 and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, and after he left the Marine Corps the young father enrolled at MiraCosta full-time while also working full-time. It was during this period approximately four years ago that White spent eight months living in his car, having sent his son to live with his mother in another state until he could find a suitable place to live.

White eventually got help from the Veterans Association of North County and found housing. Now, he is a Palomar College business student and vice president of shared governance in the college’s student government.

Much like Sorgine and Palmer, White became an advocate for the homeless after experiencing it firsthand. In his student government role, White is pushing for Palomar College to start an overnight parking permit program for students currently sleeping in their cars.

Though Palomar has future plans for housing, it currently doesn’t offer any.  

“If we can’t house the students, the next best step is to give those sleeping in their cars a safe place to sleep at night,” White said.

The program isn’t meant to be a permanent fix for students, he explained, but it would serve as a temporary place to stay until those students can get out of those situations. White would also like the program to include resource training for faculty and additional counseling services.

White isn’t alone in his quest for bringing overnight parking for students sleeping in their cars to college campuses. He said the parking program would model Cypress College’s overnight parking program designed for students experiencing temporary homelessness.

Recently, a bill was proposed in the California State Assembly that would allow homeless community college students to sleep in their vehicles in campus parking lots.

White said he would love to see an overnight parking program in the North County area and wants to work with Dreams for Change, a nonprofit that operates the “Safe Parking Program,” which provides people living in their cars a place to park at night.

Sorgine, who voiced her concerns about the invisibility of homeless and displaced college students in her final recommendations to MiraCosta, said over the last three years the invisibility factor has decreased as more colleges look at their own homeless student populations.

People like Sorgine, Palmer and White, who personally experienced homelessness and housing insecurity as students and are stepping up to advocate on behalf those currently living it, are also shedding light on the often invisible issue of homeless college students throughout North County.