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California Colleges Are Creating Centers to Assist Students With Their Basic Needs

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A metal sign that reads "University of California."
Pedestrians walk by an entrance to the UC Berkeley campus on May 22, 2014, in Berkeley. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As community college students return to their campuses, many will find one new resource to count on: a hub where they can seek support in meeting their basic needs.

Known as basic needs centers, the resources offered differ from campus to campus, but most tend to help students who are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Others also offer other support like paying for auto insurance, finding low-cost medical care, paying for internet and applying for public benefits.

The centers are the result of a new policy that went into effect on July 1 requiring every campus to hire a basic needs coordinator to begin establishing a physical center. Some campuses have long offered food and housing support and will now add to the resources offered to students.

The centers are crucial because students’ needs are constant, officials said, pointing to the experiences of the university campuses that have had basic needs centers for a few years.

At California State University and the University of California, every campus has had a basic needs center for some time. Both systems receive recurring state funding to support the centers: $15 million for the CSU and $18.5 million for the UC.

At the University of California, Irvine, for example, where a group of graduate students first opened a temporary food pantry in 2011, students are contacting the basic needs center for housing support before the new school year begins later this month.

“This is probably our biggest crisis right now,” said Christy Molino, rapid rehousing social worker at UCI Basic Needs.

For the Orange County campus, Molino is the single point of contact for students who need to find housing as quickly as possible. She’s part of a larger team at the 37,000-student campus who are the go-to group for addressing students’ basic needs, including financial wellness consultations, support with applying for the state’s food benefits program and emergency grants for students experiencing a medical, mental health, housing or food crisis.

When faculty and staff are approached by students who need help, they know exactly where to refer them. In fact, Molino estimates that half of the students she sees are direct referrals from faculty and staff.

“A university is like a city. … There are so many departments, there are so many people, and having to navigate resources is very challenging,” said Molino, who has been in the position for nearly two years.

Molino and the rest of the basic needs team at the Irvine campus are tasked with ensuring that students are as prepared as possible and ready to learn on their first day of classes in September and safeguarding continuity in meeting basic needs until the students reach graduation.

“It doesn’t matter how great the classroom experience can be, or how great the instructional materials or instructors are. If students have fundamental needs that cannot be met, they cannot complete and persist in our institutions,” said Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, vice chancellor for educational services and support at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Many basic needs coordinators, particularly at the campuses where centers are newer, are using student orientations during the summer to inform new and continuing students of the services available to them.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Emily Diehl is the basic needs coordinator of Comet Wellness at Contra Costa College, a 10,000-student campus. The center offers an array of services including a food pantry, help with accessing public benefits, free access to mental health therapists (both virtually and in person), free menstrual products in campus restrooms and free breakfast.

This week, she presented at multiple orientations for students from various backgrounds to connect directly with them so they know exactly whom to reach out to for support. This past school year, her first year on the job, she held internal presentations for faculty and staff to urge them to refer students.

“It’s been such a needed resource, having a dedicated space,” said Diehl. “It’s great that there’s a single point of contact, but there are also limitations because trying to meet all students with many different needs becomes a very big position.”

Administrative and technical support for coordinators like Diehl is coming from a team at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. This summer, the office released a toolkit for colleges to use as a reference guide as they establish and grow the centers on their campuses.

Additionally, the community college system of 115 on-campus colleges has received a one-time allocation of $100 million and a yearly allocation of $40 million to support coordinators like Diehl and help them develop their teams.

“Both of those allocations were based on a formula of state funding that included a base amount for each campus to ensure that there was equity,” said Colleen Ganley, program specialist of educational services and support at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. Each campus also received extra funding based on the number of lower-income students receiving the Pell grant. Any remaining funds were distributed to campuses based on the total student population and the number of lower-income students, she added.

“Ideally, through the single point of contact, students can access these services without having to go from one office to the other and prove over and over again that they actually need the service. … That’s a huge psychological load that a student has to shoulder,” said Ruan-O’Shaughnessy.

The push to establish basic needs centers stems from a California bill passed in 2016. AB 801 required all California community colleges to establish a single point of contact for supporting students with certain basic needs and encouraged the CSU and UC campuses to do the same.

That single point of contact, each known as a liaison, would need to be employed in the campus financial aid office so they could assist then-current and former foster youth, unhoused students and unaccompanied unhoused youth, in applying for financial aid so their basic needs could be met.

“It started to bring attention to the issue of college student homelessness which, at that time, was an issue that was really kind of flying under the radar and not much was being done about it,” said Debbie Raucher, director of education at John Burton Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization that helps California foster and unhoused youth. “It really was the first attempt to try to create some sort of system of support for students experiencing homelessness.”

When filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, students who are experiencing homelessness and are not under the direct care of an adult need to take additional steps to be identified as independent students. Prior to AB 801, there was rarely a designated person who could walk students through the process or let them know they could potentially qualify for additional financial assistance.

“AB 801 was incredibly helpful in that it instituted the position, and it also highlighted the need,” said Rashida Crutchfield, associate professor of the School of Social Work and director of the Center for Equitable Higher Education, both at CSU Long Beach. “Students have been dealing with this issue a lot longer than we’ve understood that they were or comprehended it as a problem.”

On the same campus where Crutchfield is leading research on the impact of basic needs centers, Danielle Muñoz is the director of the basic needs program, which provides resources such as short-term emergency housing, hotel vouchers, and grants for unexpected car repairs, in addition to support with applying for the state’s food benefits program.

Muñoz created the basic needs center at Sacramento State, where she worked for about seven years prior to moving to Long Beach. Regardless of where students are located, students need support because housing and living expenses remain a major challenge, she said.

“When we provide basic needs services, we promote student mental health, we provide equity to people who have limited resources, and we provide a sense of belonging and cultural inclusion,” said Muñoz. “This is the core of retention work right here.”



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