Brittany Jones is burrowed into her seat on a BART car, catching some sleep before the morning commuters arrive. As the car starts to fill with people, she finally pulls down her jacket, uncovering her face. The whoosh of the doors, the sweaty surge of denim and backpacks: This is her alarm clock.
Jones is 24, a student at Laney College in Oakland, and homeless.
To study and survive at the same time, she must answer the same questions over and over. Can she afford dinner tonight? Will she be able to sit next to the secret outlet in the BART car so she can charge her phone? Can she get a job that still allows her to go to class and keep her grades up? These are just some of the challenges Jones and other homeless college students face in California.
Like many undergraduates, homeless college students are young, ambitious and wracked by insecurities about their identities and futures. But their specific insecurity is chronic and exhausting: They live in cars, couch surf and sneak into campus buildings to spend the night. Unfortunately, these experiences are more common than many ever suspected.
'It’s hard, it’s really hard'
A study released Dec. 5 reveals that one out of three community college students in California grapples with some form of housing insecurity, up to and including homelessness. Black men, Southeast Asians and multiethnic students are particularly affected, according to the report from the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State University.
“I don’t remember what home feels like,” said 24-year-old Ebony Ortega, an ethnic studies major at San Francisco State University. Ortega sleeps in her car, at friends’ apartments or at secret spots on campus.
“It’s been quite some few years since I’ve felt like there’s some sort of comfort, security and just stability,” she added. “It’s hard, it’s really hard.”
Nationally, more than 56,000 students identified as homeless on their 2013-2014 Federal Student Aid forms. But experts believe that’s an undercount.
“Many students do not check that box on their financial aid either because they don't know it's there, or they don't think of themselves as homeless,” said Rashida Crutchfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach. Students who couch surf, for example, might not realize they are technically homeless, or may resist the stigma of that label.
Another study found that one reason the population is hard to quantify is because these students are “invisible.”
Neither Brittany Jones nor Ebony Ortega fits the stereotypical image conjured up by the word “homeless.” Ortega cultivates a punk-rock look and works long shifts at a Starbucks in downtown San Francisco. She spends her paycheck on tuition instead of rent, because she can’t afford both.
“My parents did not just come here for me to hang out, and just have some regular working-class job,” Ortega said. Her parents immigrated from Mexico, and she grew up poor in Palmdale (Los Angeles County).
“I get scared that if I stop, I won’t be able to get up and do what I do now,” she added. “I’m already this far. So it’s just like, I might as well keep going."
Jones, for her part, takes pains with her thrift-store outfits, and sports a new hairstyle practically every week. She’s acutely conscious of her hygiene.
“I don’t feel like just because I’m homeless that I have to look the part,” she said, while walking by a tent encampment under a freeway in Oakland.
Yet Jones grew up at great risk for homelessness: Her mother died when she was 5, and her father was fatally shot when she was just a newborn. She spent years in foster care, and since age 19 has essentially been homeless: bouncing between relatives, group homes and shelters.
A Trunk-Sized Safe Space
A year ago, Jones had a bed in a transitional home for former foster youth. She explained she lost that spot when she broke the rules, letting a guest in when she wasn’t supposed to.
Since then, she sleeps where she can: couches and floors when they’re offered, buses and BART trains when they’re not. She always carries a change of clothes, laundry detergent and toiletries.
A few weeks ago, Jones stayed up all night on a San Francisco pier, and a week before that at a 24-hour Carl’s Jr. When that happens, she heads to a BART station by 4 a.m., to catch the day’s first train. Aside from a friend’s apartment, it’s the only place she feels safe actually falling asleep. A few hours later, she wakes and drags herself off, eager to avoid the stares of the rush-hour crowds.
After graduating from high school in Antioch, Jones wasn’t convinced college was for her. Instead, she came to the conclusion gradually while working overnight jobs as a security guard or grocery stocker. Years went by, but she never advanced financially or professionally.
“I wanted to go to college to better myself, honestly,” Jones said. “I want to be in a totally better situation. I know school is the key.”
Jones calls Laney College, near Lake Merritt in Oakland, one of her “safe zones.”
This semester she is taking an English class and a life-skills class. As a low-income student, she receives a monthly food stipend for the campus cafeteria. But none of her classmates know she is homeless.
Jones has another safe zone: a stuffy storage locker no bigger than a car trunk in industrial West Oakland. She’ll spend a few hours a day there doing homework, organizing her belongings or writing in her journal.
As more colleges and universities gain an understanding of the scope of housing and food insecurity among their students, they’re experimenting with solutions. Some campuses have established food pantries, and others provide short-term housing for students in crisis, or those who have nowhere to go for the holidays.
In September, California enacted new laws to assist homeless college students. Community colleges, for example, must grant homeless students priority when registering for classes, allow them access to campus showers and designate a staff person to assist them.
Students are also organizing: UC Berkeley now has a Homeless Student Union, and in October two UCLA students opened the Bruin Shelter in Santa Monica for anyone enrolled at UCLA or other schools.
James de la Nueve, a civil engineering student at Santa Monica College, is one of the shelter’s first residents. He was kicked out of his house after a family fight, and said the shelter helps keep him focused.
“I’m trying to be on the academic track,” he said. “I’m not trying to continue being on the streets forever.”
Rashida Crutchfield at CSU Long Beach likes the idea of a college shelter, but said it’s not enough. If she were a student, she said, “It’s important to maybe catch me before I'm homeless and make sure I'm getting the financial support that I need, or getting access to support services that I need.”
For Brittany Jones, the daily search for shelter is an awkward social tiptoe. She sends texts to friends and relatives every evening, hoping one will ping her back and offer her a place to stay. She doesn’t want to ask outright.
“I don’t like to like wear out my welcome,” she said.
Although her parents are dead, Jones has mental conversations with them every day.
“I feel like they’re the ones listening to me,” she explained. “I like to look in the mirror and talk to them.”
Without a home, Jones has constructed an internal shelter made up of memories, role models, and her hopes and dreams for a college degree, perhaps in business or social work. “I just try to be, like, my own support system. Be my own encouragement.”
Additional reporting by April Dembosky and Ana Tintocalis