With the high costs of attending California state universities and the difficulty of achieving admission to them, the state's 114 community colleges are playing a larger role than ever before, serving more than 2 million enrolled students.
Shockingly, almost one community-college student in five is living without a regular residence to go home to. These homeless young people are couch-surfing with friends, living on the street or sleeping in their cars, if they have one.
And most are already under enormous stress and financial strain because they are working full- or part-time jobs while also attending college.
A recent survey of 40,000 students released by the Community Colleges Chancellor's Office found that that 19 percent were homeless at some time during the previous year. Extrapolated to the total community-college population, that means that as many as 400,000 may have faced homelessness.
Three years ago, to provide some support for these students, the legislature approved a law (AB 1995) requiring community colleges to open showers at campus athletic facilities for two hours a day to homeless students even if they aren't participating on sports teams or in physical-education classes.
The Student Senate for California Community Colleges has now enlisted Palo Alto Assemblyman Marc Berman to carry a bill, AB 302, that would require each community college to allow registered students to park and sleep in their cars in one or more designated campus parking lots.
As sad and uncomfortable as this idea seems, it is an innovative initiative that, if implemented appropriately, could be an important strategy for supporting students at risk of dropping out of school and losing the opportunity to obtain the education needed to pursue better employment or admission to a state university.
Berman, who chairs the Assembly Select Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education in California, conducted hearings throughout the state last legislative session and heard many stories of students sleeping in their cars because they could not afford housing. One local student attending Foothill College has described the two years he spent working full-time and maintaining a full school schedule and having to search for a safe place to park his car and sleep every night.
Setting up areas on community-college campuses for students to sleep in their cars is obviously not a solution to the housing problem, but it is a way to address a basic need of vulnerable students who have the most to gain from a college degree.
There are many details to be worked out, and Berman's preference is to give each community-college chancellor flexibility in implementing the requirement. It calls for each college to designate an area for overnight parking, establish hours of operation, provide accessible bathrooms and security, require that students agree in writing to follow rules established, such as no alcohol or drugs, and limit use to students enrolled for a minimum number of units who are in good standing with the school academically and financially (if not on fee waivers).
Among the issues to be worked out on a campus-by-campus basis is whether to require cars to leave the parking area each day to ensure the area remains clean and encampments don't get created.
The bill is crafted so that the community colleges will be entitled to reimbursement from the state for their costs in implementing the program. This should allow campuses to provide the appropriate security and other services without it impacting their budgets, but the potential expense to the state is a major question that still needs to be answered.
Berman and other supporters of the legislation also hope that colleges will enhance the program by connecting the homeless students with other available resources such as assistance with food, transitional housing and counseling services, but details are left to each campus.
On Tuesday, the bill received unanimous support from all 10 members of the Assembly Higher Education Committee and will be heard by the Appropriations Committee in mid-May.
The "Safe Lot" bill is not a housing solution for homeless students, but it's a step worth trying to help them feel safe. Only a few community colleges have on-campus student housing. Some very inexpensive dormitories or even gym or other facilities opening at night during winter months might be a partial answer in the future.
But for now, Berman's bill is a small but important step toward valuing these young people and addressing a problem that has become a major obstacle to their completing a college education.