At 57, Drake Davis doesn't have much in common with his San Francisco State University classmates. He's a former Army infantryman who had a brief career in talk radio and did a stint in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. One thing he does share with an estimated 50,000 California State University students: He struggles with homelessness.
Of CSU’s 480,000 students, an estimated 11 percent lacked a stable home at least once in the last 12 months. An estimated 200,000 students -- close to 42 percent of CSU's enrollment -- have difficulty affording enough quality food. That's more than three times the national rate for the general U.S. population, and half those students are believed to have very low food security.
Those numbers come from CSU’s first systemwide report on student homelessness and food insecurity, released earlier this week. Researchers say it’s the most comprehensive study of its kind.
The study relied on surveys with students from all 23 CSU campuses for basic data. Researchers then followed up with interviews on some campuses to collect more nuanced information about the impact of homelessness and food insecurity on students’ academic performance and mental health.
Davis has lived all over San Francisco --- at Ocean Beach, in Golden Gate Park and outside SFSU's Creative Arts Building behind a yucca plant.
When campus police spotted him recently and started asking questions, he says, "I took out my San Francisco State student ID and they were kind of floored. They’re like, ‘Oh! You’re a student here!' ”
He says he has since found a storage locker off campus where he can sleep.
The study found more students were homeless in urban areas, like San Francisco, but rural Humboldt County was a major exception.
Students who were former foster youth had significantly higher rates of homelessness and food insecurity; first-generation college students had slightly higher-than-average rates and so did transfer students and students who received Pell Grants.
Men were more likely to deal with homelessness than women, but women were more likely to face food insecurity than men. Black students who were the first generation in their family to attend university were the most likely to struggle with food insecurity and faced much higher-than-average rates of homelessness.
“It’s important for us to really understand where the need is higher, so we can really respond with a targeted approach for those students,” says CSU Long Beach professor Rashida Crutchfield, who co-authored the report.
Crutchfield says students dealing with food insecurity and homelessness generally had lower GPAs and more academic worries than their classmates. One pair of students told the researchers that worrying about having a place to stay was “like a job” that zapped their energy and focus.
“We have to continue to push against this quaint notion of the starving student,” Crutchfield says, “and really consider how tirelessly our students are working to manage their food and housing security, as well as their academic goals.”
CSU has already taken some steps to address these issues. All 23 campuses now have food pantries. A handful accept food stamps, and more are starting to do so. And most of the schools have emergency housing and funding available.
Now, Crutchfield says, it’s time to look at how well these services are working, and how to reach those students the study found were most at risk.