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Let homeless students sleep in parking lots? California community colleges say it’ll be costly

These are some of the issues behind California’s housing crisis

California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.
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California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.

California community colleges are walking a narrow path in raising concerns about a proposed law that would require them to keep their parking lots open at night for homeless students.

They have not opposed the bill, Assembly Bill 302, but they are highlighting costs they would incur and asking lawmakers to pay for them.

The proposal could cost the state “potentially in the tens of millions of dollars annually,” according to an analysis of the legislation by the Assembly Appropriates Committee. That’s counting extra money for security and maintenance, the costs associated with the issuance of overnight parking permits, as well as potential liability.

Colleges are watching a bill proposed by Assemblyman Mark Berman, D-Palo Alto, that aims to give immediate relief to students who don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight by reassuring them they could sleep at their colleges.

The bill has no official opposition — it sailed through the Assembly Committee on Education with a unanimous vote. The Assembly Committee on Appropriations takes up the bill on Thursday.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has “no formal position, but we are hoping that the author will agree to make the bill optional at the district level,” according to a spokeswoman for the office.

Sacramento County’s Los Rios Community College District said in a statement to lawmakers that “our colleges are already launching initiatives to help homeless students and a ‘one size fits all’ mandate may not make sense for the diverse community college system.”

The district said that following this law would be costly, even with funding from the state.

“Mandate cost claims are never fully reimbursed: Mandates are reimbursed only after costs are incurred and often times do not reflect the actual costs incurred in these activities,” according to the college district statement.

In California, nearly a fifth of all community college students experienced homelessness in the past year, while more than half, 60 percent, were “housing insecure” in the previous year, according to a report from nonprofit group The Hope Center, as well as research from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.

Berman’s bill is backed by the California Community Colleges Student Senate. It has the support of groups including the California Community College Faculty Association, National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter, and the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

“California can take interim steps to address the mounting crisis of homelessness among community college students by allowing enrolled students to safely park overnight on campuses,” the Alliance for Children’s Rights wrote in a statement included in an analysis of the bill.

The Community College League of California in a written statement to lawmakers said that all 72 community college districts would face new costs if the bill passes. The group urged lawmakers to focus on the big picture housing issues in California, calling AB 302 a temporary fix.

Berman agreed that more, and more affordable, housing is the ultimate solution to California’s homeless crisis.

““But that will take years. And in the meantime there are hundreds of thousands of college students experiencing homelessness right now. Tonight,” Berman said.

At an April press conference he said he offered the bill after hearing from students on a listening tour.

“By far the most common concern I heard from students was about the cost of housing, including heart-wrenching stories from students who found themselves sleeping in their cars because they could not afford the cost of housing,” he said.

One such student, whose account served as inspiration for AB 302, was Matthew Bodo, a third-year student at Foothill College, in Los Altos Hills.

“I spent about two years, on and off homeless, sleeping primarily in my car while couch-surfing, trying to find a stable place to live,” Bodo said.

He said that despite working full-time, along with being a full-time student, he “still wasn’t able to come up with enough money to be able to afford to pay rent.”

Bodo described his attempts to sleep in his car on his college campus, so he could be close to showers in the morning before work and school. He said he was told to leave by campus police, forcing him to park farther and farther away, in residential neighborhoods.

“The residents did not take kindly to it, they did things like vandalize my car, which was a very big deal to me because that was my home. I had nowhere else to sleep,” he said.

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