Carrying a heavier load

Homeless students stressed by life—but Butte has help available

Tara Ames, who was homeless while attending Butte College six years ago, has since earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Chico State.

Tara Ames, who was homeless while attending Butte College six years ago, has since earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Chico State.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

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When Tara Ames first enrolled at Butte College, she had the carefree attitude of many 18-year-olds. Classes became her extracurricular activities: When she bothered to attend, she said, “I don’t think I went sober once.” Then she stopped going altogether.

After turning 25, she enrolled again. She was motivated, dedicated, determined to succeed—but faced obstacles she never imagined her first time as a freshman.

Ames was homeless. She and her partner, Eric, slept in her compact car with their rat terrier, Zitch. They’d seek places around Chico to park, often getting rousted by police or disturbed by other homeless people. Virtually every day they were ill-rested and hungry.

At college, she kept her situation secret from her peers. Ames arrived between 5:30 and 6 a.m. so no one would see her enter the science building to use the restrooms or—on lucky days—find a shower to clean up. She’d stay on campus through the end of her night classes.

Only during the student commencement speech at Butte College’s 2014 graduation did she reveal her homelessness. Afterward, she learned she wasn’t alone. Classmates approached her to say they, too, were or had been at some point homeless.

“Every homeless student has a different story of how they got there, what their priorities were, who was supporting them and if they were comfortable asking people for help,” Ames said. “I think a lot of them are afraid to do that because of the stigma.”

That reluctance contributes to the uncertainty surrounding the number of homeless students. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office reported 124 total for a four-year period (May 2014 to July 2018) at Butte, where enrollment exceeds 11,000. A 2017 California Community Colleges survey found 14 percent of students homeless and 35 percent housing insecure.

Ames, at the time, didn’t consider herself homeless. After a few months in the car, she and Eric moved to a friend’s property in Capay. They hunkered down in a 14-foot trailer with no water or power and a leaky roof they covered with a tarp. They ran an extension cord from a barn so they could run one electric item at a time: laptop, printer, lamp or electric blanket.

Butte had a food pantry, but when she first went in 2012, a student could get only two bags of groceries per semester—“like that’s supposed to help anybody,” Ames said. This was the extent of the assistance she received; “all my paperwork said I was homeless, but nobody reached out.”

Now 32, Ames harbors no animosity. She graduated from Butte with honors and two associate degrees, transferring to Chico State. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. She and Eric live in a house with Zitch and another dog, Jayne. Both volunteer with the Safe Space Winter Shelter, and she volunteers with the 6th Street Center for Youth.

Ames tells others who find themselves where she was: “It’s a long road, but it’s 100 percent worth it.”

Butte College has increased resources for students in need since Ames’ graduation. In fact, a significant effort begins this semester.

Roadrunner Hub will consolidate a range of services into a single location. There, students will find the food pantry, offering grocery items—available in greater amounts than six years ago—plus meals, snacks, toiletry items and baby food; assistance in applying for CalFresh, the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps; and housing resources, including a roommate board and guidance in preparing a “housing résumé” of rental history and references.

Butte has other programs through Student Services (see infobox) such as health care, counseling and job placement.

Some parts of the lattice stem from Assembly Bill 801, the Success for Homeless Youth in Higher Education Act, a 2016 law requiring colleges to offer support ranging from a staff liaison to showers. At Butte, the liaison is David Goodson, coordinator of Student Success Services.

Dean Jo Anna Birdsall says developing programs that help students with needs succeed “is what it’s about for me … why I’m here at Butte College.”

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

AB 801 dovetails off the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—those regulations have a specific definition of “homeless student” involving several criteria, such as someone “who lacks fixed, regular and adequate night time residence.”

However, as was the case with Ames at Butte, not every homeless student self-identifies as such. Was the Capay trailer “adequate”? Her opinion is different now than then. What about a student who stays on friends’ couches?

“Homelessness varies, and the definition of someone who is homeless varies,” said Jo Anna Birdsall, dean of Student Services. “Because you have that varying definition, you really can’t get an accurate count of exactly how many homeless students we may have on campus.”

From her own interactions with students, and those of Student Services staff, Birdsall is sure the chancellor’s office census figure of 124 is low. The college does not plan its programs around that number; in fact, it considers a spectrum of needs rather than focusing on a single aspect such as homelessness.

Take the creation of the food pantry, established in 2008 after faculty approached the vice president for student services “indicating students were really hungry in class,” she said, “and as a result of that they were having difficulty concentrating.”

Birdsall noted that “a lot of times homelessness and hunger go hand in hand”; Butte has a “basic needs perspective” in developing programs and services. Faculty, staff and people associated with outside agencies partnering with the college—such as the Chico Housing Action Team and Butte Community Employment Centers—develop relationships with students that lead to further aid.

“Helping to develop some of the resources, working with various programs and collaborating in the community is what it’s about for me, to help our students succeed,” Birdsall said. “That’s why I’m here at Butte College.”

Dustin Loreque knows the uncertainty of homelessness. Last summer, he relocated from San Diego to Chico with his older brother, Tyson, to improve their lot in life. They had worked full-time but, with the cost of living so high in the Southland, couldn’t afford rent—and, no longer in their 20s, found they’d aged out of couch-surfing. Their fortunes in the North State proved no better.

Loreque, now 39, made the same decision as Ames: enroll at Butte while living out of his car. (His brother did the same.) They got what sleep they could, usually five hours or so in the parking lot of Chico’s Walmart. They dealt with hunger and frightening encounters with dangerous individuals.

The magnitude of their straits led Loreque to “kind of go over the edge,” he said, realizing “there’s no help coming, there’s no family”—just the brothers. “And being a full-time student on top of that stress… .”

It was a lot to handle. He hesitated to tell others because friends had an odd reaction, beyond stigma.

“Some people that are empathetic understand, but for the most part people either don’t understand or they think it’s like a sickness or a plague,” Loreque said. “It’s like they can catch it, it can happen to them, so they distance themselves.

“And then you don’t know who to trust.”

Loreque felt comfortable enough to seek help on campus. He got math tutoring through Student Success Services. He contacted Birdsall’s office about getting a safe place to park. He met with Dawn Blackhorse, a student success specialist at Butte, who made sure he knew about available benefits such as the food pantry and showers.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Blackhorse also contacted CHAT. The housing nonprofit called him about a week after their meeting. Last month, the brothers moved into a CHAT house, with roommates including other previously homeless students.

“It’s been a long battle,” Loreque said. “I feel secure for [the first time] in a couple years … . If it wasn’t for the fact that I got to meet the people that I got to meet, I don’t think I would be in this situation.

“Going through it, it feels like you’re alone, that it’s only happening to you—and it’s not. There are resources. But they’re not easy to come by, and since you’re not the only one out there, you have to be in pursuit; you have to want to change your situation.”