The homeless students interviewed for this article must remain anonymous in order to protect their identities.
She sleeps on her friend’s couch every night and keeps her belongings in her car, yet the 20-year-old unnamed Fullerton College student refused to call herself homeless.
“I feel weird with those labels,” she said. “I’ve never been on a lease, but I get to stay with a friend most of the time and pay what I can.”
She is one of 61% of Fullerton College students who describe themselves as “housing insecure,” a term used to describe people living in inadequate shelters. They may have roofs over their heads but their living spaces may be crowded, expensive, improperly maintained, or they may rely on their vehicle or a friend’s couch.
For the student, not even her friend can afford the $1,650 rent on the studio apartment that they share. Rather, her parents co-signed the lease and paid at least 50% of the rent every month.
After the COVID-19 shutdowns, things have gotten worse. According to California’s unemployment agency, 7.4% of people in Orange County are without a job as of January 2021, up from 2.9% a year ago. Leisure and hospitality saw the worst decline with more than half of those job losses coming from the food service industry which is where most students found employment.
The city of Fullerton passed an eviction moratorium extension for residential properties until January 31, 2021. However, Laura Kraft, program manager at Home Share OC, said this will lead to another crisis in itself.
“What’s going to happen when the moratorium lifts? All the students that have been putting off their rent, that’s going to be a huge bill for them. Landlords are going to add $200 a month for the months they didn’t pay,” Kraft said.
In fact, because of the moratorium, on top of the credit checks, income requirements, and background checks, landlords have become even more selective with their tenets. Kraft said that some landlords are asking that renters have 3 months’ worth of rent in their bank accounts to get approved for an apartment. Sixty-nine percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck as of September 2020 according to the American Payroll Association.
Homeowners with spare rooms, once a reliable source of affordable housing, have taken down listings after the pandemic hit.
In addition, the public spaces and shared resources that homeless and housing insecure individuals rely on for things such as running water, showers, and Wifi are no longer available.
“There is also nowhere to use the bathroom, shower, or heat up any food. Most of the time I would have to wash my hair in a sink at school or get to my job really really early so nobody would see me brushing my teeth,” said one homeless Cal State Fullerton student housed by Kraft’s Home Share OC program.
Libraries, cafes, and college campuses, areas where students have access to free WiFi and secure study space, were shut down. Many public bathrooms have closed their doors to the public. Orange County buses have cut down on service.
Fullerton College does provide resources to students in need of assistance. As of 2019, NOCCCD has partnered with Pathways of Hope to better provide food and housing to insecure students. The Healthy Hornets Food Drive is available to students every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. after signing up here.
“I have attempted to utilize almost all housing and basic needs assistance that was available, and although helpful, was just a Band-Aid over the real problems,” said the Cal State Fullerton Student.
The student eventually found housing through Kraft’s project, Home Share OC. The program works by setting up an agreement, not a lease, with senior homeowners who have spare rooms. Home Share OC housed its first student in December, and, according to Kraft, has already been a success.
The highest rent for a room is $500, and students often pay less than that after a month or two of living there. In exchange, students help out with chores and errands. While the program does not check the student’s credit, there is a thorough interview process to make sure both parties are a good fit for the program.
Kraft, for now, has been promoting the program on the CSUF campus, but she has plans to expand. After a meeting with Fullerton College President Greg Schultz on Thursday, Schultz has expressed interest in the project.
Yet, while colleges and cities have worked to provide resources for those in need, it cannot change the fact that building developers have not built houses for low-income people.
“The grand misunderstanding of the role that agencies and nonprofits like ours can play is that we cannot solve the problem on a policy level. Pathways of Hope is just not capable of bringing down rent prices,” said Pathways of Hope Executive Director David Gillanders.
For those part of the 61% of Fullerton College students experiencing housing insecurity visit the Fullerton College Basic Needs page, City of Fullerton Resident Resources, a list of affordable housing in Fullerton, or contact Laura Kraft at Laura@his-oc.org for more information about Home Share OC.