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The Unhoused Students of LACC: How Do You Sleep at Night?

LA’S HOMELESS STUDENTS--How do you sleep at night is a question more than a few homeless students from Los Angeles City College would like to put to the Councilmember in CD13 and the rest of City Hall.

If you ask the question of LACC’s homeless college students, too many will answer: In our cars. 

As President of the Rampart Village Neighborhood Council, an area inside of CD13 just south of Los Angeles City College, I am forced to ask the question every day on behalf of these students, even if the rest of City Hall doesn’t.

Many students who attend LACC, and the other eight campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), are the first in their families to attend college. Unfortunately, the pandemic and ensuing economic hardship have forced many students to withdraw from classes. Dropout rates are at an all-time high. To add to this academic horror, many Los Angeles community college students find themselves homeless. The reality is that nearly 20% of LACCD’s student body is homeless according to a District survey taken in 2016.

The impact of food and housing insecurity among LACC’s predominantly young, minority student body has been well known to City Hall since 2016, yet little has been done to truly help the homeless students of the three most hard-hit campuses -- LACC, Los Angeles Trade Tech, Los Angeles Southwest College.

With LACC, that 20% equals roughly 3,400 students by today’s estimates. But that figure represents the percentage of unhoused students before COVID, double-digit unemployment, remote learning, and campus shutdowns. Student services on District campuses have slowed significantly. Some services, like available showers in campus athletic departments, have become nonexistent. Cost-of-living increases, tuition hikes, shrinking affordable housing inventory, all point to current 2021 estimates of housing insecurity among students being much higher on the hardest hit campuses.

Spend any time on a moonlit night near LACC’s Vermont Avenue parking lot, and you will see interior car cabin lights blink on and off like random quantum dots. These are the homeless students of Los Angeles City College. The lot offers some measure of safety for students living out of their cars during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the lot, students can still get a campus WiFi signal to study and do homework. Some work gig jobs on the side to make money for food and gas. It’s often too expensive to run the car heater all night.

Housing insecurity among LACC’s student population can take many forms: living out of a car or truck, crashing on a friend’s couch, doubling up inside a motel room with a friend or fellow student, not making the rent, making partial rent, having to move more than once a year, or often just finding a place on campus to shower and sleep. Studies show the chronically homeless who sleep in cars pose a higher risk of becoming victims of violent crime. Chronically homeless people also run higher risks of developing serious illnesses and medical conditions.

Repeated attempts by my campaign office to contact the Administration at LACC to get a true estimate of the number of unhoused students in 2021, and exactly how the college is addressing their needs, were unsuccessful. Messages left with the Dean of Student Life and the Financial Aid office went unanswered. It’s logical to assume if LACC Admins are not in their offices due to COVID-19, they are not present to oversee the needs of LACC’s unhoused and food insecure students. 

City Hall doesn’t like to acknowledge ugly facts for political reasons. The uglier the fact, the more they tend to ignore it. Here’s an ugly fact:

We have entered an Age of Homelessness.

Homelessness has been part of the skin of urban LA, shrinking and expanding, in starts and fits, since the 1980s. But LA has never experienced homelessness on this massive scale. The scope of it is shocking, and, yet it is now our new normal.

SO, HOW DO YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT?

Over eighty, deluxe, 15ft.-trailers (photo left) owned by the City have sat empty and idle in Griffith Park since December 2020. The rigs boast names like Bullet, Coleman, HideOut. Within the past two weeks, fifty rigs parked outside the Friendship Auditorium have disappeared to an unknown location. Thirty-one remain in the parking lot at the LA Zoo. The trailers could be used immediately to house the homeless students of LACC at the Vermont Avenue parking lot. At the very least, portable bathrooms and shower facilities could be set up for students requiring them. The effort could come out of HHH funds and cost next to nothing.

What we lack is not funds, but leadership. The City Council and the Councilmember in CD13 would have to admit a permanent class of homeless community college students arose under their tenure. Showers and rigs aside, the City has failed to develop a long-range effective solution to what is now a long-term problem of homelessness.

The City needs to adopt the model pioneered by the Aids Healthcare Foundation of Los Angeles (AHF). To ensure an inventory of affordable housing for its low-income clients, AHF purchases old apartment buildings and converts them into affordable housing. The City should begin the process of purchasing older commercial structures near LACC and other campuses, with plans to convert the units into emergency and affordable housing for low-income students.

In the same manner New York University absorbed the 19th Century Greenwich Village sweatshops around it to create a new, integrated urban campus, so City Hall and the Los Angeles Community College District can purchase existing commercial structures along Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard with HHH, or other funds, offering a permanent solution to what has become a permanent problem.

City Hall must first have the foresight to recognize what a permanent problem looks like.

 

(Rachael Rose Luckey is a Transgender Political Activist who has devoted the last several years to robustly understanding the issues Angelenos face and the progressive solutions needed. She is President of the Rampart Village Neighborhood Council and hosts the podcast Conversations With LA (conversationswithla.com) as part of her run for LA City Council CD13. (The opinions expressed are solely her own.) Photos: RachaelRoseForLA.com. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.