Home at last
Chico State students find housing through university, local nonprofit
Ashley West bustled about her quaint home, doing dishes, taking a sip of her cinnamon and sugar coffee and sending out inquiries about internships. She’s busy, but she likes it that way. At the forefront of her mind is school—classes resume at Chico State soon, and she wants to be prepared.
This seemingly typical college life isn’t something West takes for granted. Things weren’t always like this.
“I did overcome a lot, and I didn’t even think it was a big deal at the time,” she told the CN&R.
West first experienced homelessness in her teenage years and has struggled to find housing throughout college. In fact, when she arrived at Chico State as a wide-eyed freshman in 2014, she ended up living out of her old hatchback for a few months. Since then, she’s managed to keep a roof over her head, though she’s moved a lot.
This summer, feelings of anxiety started taking a toll: Her lease was ending in July and no matter how many places she sought to rent, she couldn’t get approved. West was sure she’d have to endure homelessness once again.
With help from Chico State and the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), however, she now rents a home in a south campus neighborhood with three housemates and her affectionate, energetic dog, Pinball.
West, 22, is poised to graduate in the spring with her bachelor’s in social work.
“It’s a cycle, but I’m breakin’ it,” she said. “I was meant to go to college, I was meant to help people.”
While West’s life is looking up, student homelessness in California has become exacerbated by the housing crisis. Rents have skyrocketed in recent years.
A 2018 California State University research study found that 500 Chico State students will find themselves displaced or homeless during the academic year, and at least half of all Chico State students (about 8,000) are experiencing low to very low food security.
Fortunately, the campus is working to address this crisis.
A few years ago, Chico State’s Basic Needs Project was formed through a larger CSU-wide initiative to address issues of housing and food insecurity. (The project’s flagship program, the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry, was launched in 2013 to provide free supplemental food to students.)
Jen Johnson, a graduate student in the English Department who lives with West in the CHAT house, said if it hadn’t been for the pantry, there were nights she would have gone hungry.
Johnson (who asked the CN&R not to use her real name) was evicted this past spring after she was late on a rent payment. Despite having lived there for a year and a half with no issues, “they treated me like I’d been squatting there,” she said. She enlisted a friend to store her belongings, and then she was on her own: Her parents, who used to be pillars of support, both died 10 years ago.
Johnson, 36, ended up staying with a classmate to finish out the semester after a few other options didn’t pan out. But when that classmate’s lease was up, she had to stay at the Torres Community Shelter for three weeks.
Johnson said when people become homeless, it isn’t just because they are lazy or unmotivated. While she was staying at the Torres Shelter, she was grappling with depression and trying to find a job. On top of that, she has been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years and struggled to figure out how to stay true to her diet.
“It’s just really hard to be homeless,” she said. “It’s a constant gnawing in your brain. It’s a constant worry this is not something you’re going to be able to get out of.”
It was hard to confide in others while it was happening, because there is such a stigma attached to being homeless, Johnson told the CN&R.
“You don’t want to tell people because it feels like a failure. You feel like you can’t do the bare minimum to take care of yourself,” Johnson said. “That’s really hard not only to deal with but to admit.”
Last year, the Basic Needs staff helped 13 students like Johnson and West find free emergency housing (up to two weeks) and transitional housing, and assisted dozens more with off-campus housing support. They partner with other Chico State departments (like University Housing, Student Financial Services and Off-Campus Student Services) to make it happen.
During the last school year, more than $10,000 in emergency grants and employment opportunities was awarded to students who faced an unexpected financial crisis. The university also covers short-term hotel stays (two to three nights) and works with property owners to help students get approved for leases.
Joe Picard, Basic Needs Project administrator, said he is asked often about his vision for the programs. His answer: “I would like in five years to be obsolete.
“We’re reacting to the fact that financial aid is inadequate,” he continued. “The state and federal aid programs aren’t as robust as they used to be, and the cost of living has outpaced the level of aid they’re providing.”
According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2017, tuition and fees at colleges and universities continued to rise the last two school years, along with the net price students pay after deducting grant aid and tax credits. In 2015-16, state and local appropriations per student were 11 percent lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than a decade earlier and 13 percent lower than 30 years earlier.
During 2017-18, the average full-time, in-state public four-year college student received $5,830 in grant aid and federal tax benefits, covering 58 percent of the $9,970 published tuition and fee price. Federal aid recipients with incomes $30,000 and below paid no tuition on average, but still had to figure out how to cover $11,820 in nontuition expenses.
Indeed, both West and Johnson have had to take out loans on top of financial aid to get by. Johnson said one-third to half of her financial aid typically goes toward rent expenses.
“I’ve taken out so many loans, I’ve pretty much accepted I’m going to be in debt until I die,” Johnson said. She estimates having already racked up $80,000.
Picard said the financial stress placed upon students is so high, it can be one of the biggest barriers to graduation.
Student loan debt surpasses all other forms of debt for Americans aside from mortgages, at $1.41 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest report on household debt and credit.
“How much can these students be leveraged for their future?” Picard asked.
He knows there are still a lot more students who need help, and there are gaps to fill when it comes to their care—dental and vision services are good examples. But his team is focused on helping as many students as possible further their dreams by creating a safe, sincere, nonjudgmental environment at the Basic Needs Project office.
“Right now, we’re seeing our first students [we’ve helped] graduate,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that really make us feel good—that they’re successful.”
While the university and CHAT aren’t officially linked, Picard sees the potential in working with the organization to get students into stable housing.
Johnson and West expressed a lot of gratitude for Picard and CHAT—West called the nonprofit her guardian angel. The organization advocated for West to be able to keep Pinball. She has raised him since he was 7 weeks old, when he was a scraped-up pup living in a drain pipe near the Jesus Center.
The pit bull, who’s almost 2 years old, is her “best friend” and “all love.” During a recent interview, the pair were proud to show off his tricks: Pinball can shake hands and is learning how to snatch treats off of his nose.
“He protects me. I feel safer with him, honestly,” she said. “If it wasn’t for CHAT, I wouldn’t have Pinball. I would be in debt. I wouldn’t have anything.”
West said she actually has been able to see her future now that she has a stable home. She can picture herself graduating from Chico State while living in her current place.
“I haven’t been able to see past tomorrow in a long time.”