Living in the Shadows: Homelessness at SMC

Twenty-seven-year-old Santa Monica College student Francisco Munoz was living in a rented house near the Los Angeles International Airport last fall when his landlord gave him and his roommates two weeks to move out. The homeowner had sold the house, but neglected to tell the tenants. "Literally in the middle of exams, I had to figure out some way for a permanent place to live, which was stressful," says Munoz, a veteran who grew up in Bakersfield. He moved to Los Angeles to attend SMC in Spring 2010, attending intermittently until deploying to serve in Afghanistan, then returning to resume his studies.


“The big hurdles that I had was that my credit isn’t great, and I don’t have money saved up..." Munoz says,"...things just spiraled down from there." Munoz stayed with various friends and family, and at a veterans' homeless shelter in Hollywood. He now lives in Bakersfield. "On Sunday or Monday morning, I take the Greyhound bus to L.A., and then I couch surf while I'm in L.A. and go to class Monday through Wednesday," he says. He usually arranges a place to stay, but has also stayed at the VA Hospital in West Los Angeles — either sleeping on a chair in the lobby or outside on their grounds.


No one knows the exact number of students at SMC experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. "We do not have great statistical information yet at SMC, but we are working on it," says Nancy Grass, the Associate Dean of Student Life, in an email. According to Bill Bloom, Associate Dean of Financial Aid and Scholarships, 28 students self-identified as homeless or at risk of homelessness in response to questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application form in the current school year.


"The numbers are way higher than that," says Dr. Debra Locke, who oversees the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) and Guardian Scholars programs, which provide food and housing assistance, and other aid to students with financial and academic needs, and to foster youth. In fact, the estimated number is closer to 3,000 students, says Locke, citing L.A. County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) research that estimates approximately ten percent of a school's student population experiences homelessness. SMC has about 30,000 students.


The number could be even higher. According to a Fall 2016 study on food and housing insecurity published by the nearby Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), of the 5,925 students who completed an online survey, 55 percent experienced housing insecurity and 18.6 percent experienced homelessness in the past year.


Under federal education guidelines, "homeless" is defined as "lack[ing] a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." Students are considered experiencing homelessness if they are couch surfing, living in their car, in a shelter, or outdoors, Locke says.


“Many of our homeless students live in the shadows," Locke says. "Unless you are aware of them, unless they self-identify, you don't know."


Students may be reluctant to ask for assistance because of the stigma of homelessness. "I want to be anonymous just to protect my own image," says a 22-year-old student who did not want his name published. "I don't want to be known as the person who's been through hard times or living in the back of a car or in the streets with nothing to eat."


After getting evicted from his apartment for making excessive noise, the student began living in his car. "I wasn't able to pay rent anymore," he says. "I would park in parking garages and not very frequented LA streets... I'd put black fabric up [in the car windows] so people couldn't see in." Currently, the student is staying with his girlfriend in Koreatown and gives her money for rent.


The lack of affordable housing is one factor in the homelessness crisis. "Because we are located in Santa Monica, it's a very affluent area, but many of our students are commuters," Locke says. "Trying to find affordable housing on the westside, in general, is the biggest problem we have for our students."


On May 31, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) announced that for the first time in four years, the homeless population in L.A. County decreased and is currently 53,195 individuals.


"The count is important, but the most important thing is that when a student is identified as homeless that they get the services they need," says Susan Fila, who oversees SMC's Health Center and the Center for Wellness and Wellbeing.


SMC provides a wide range of resources to various student populations, including food pantries and programs like FLVR and The Corsair Market, meal vouchers, book vouchers, and other assistance.


"We don't have housing solutions, but we have a network of [community providers] that do," says Lina Ladyzhenskaya, case management coordinator for SMC's crisis prevention team. "In my office, it's not a referral, it's a warm hand-off. I know exactly who to call... and will see someone's case through until they're connected to a resource."


More attention is being paid to homelessness among community college students. A new state law requires schools, like SMC, to allow enrolled homeless students to use its shower facilities without enrolling in additional classes, such as athletics.


"I could have easily dropped school to focus on work, but I told myself, 'No, I have to get through school because it's the right path,'" Munoz says. This fall, Munoz is transferring to UC Santa Cruz majoring in anthropology. “I’m willing to speak on [homelessness] because I know my experience is one of many."