Housing for homeless students

One of the seven units in The Village, a new housing project at Cerritos College to help homeless college students. (Photos: Cerritos College)

A California community college and a nonprofit that assists homeless and displaced young adults have opened a seven-unit housing project for students facing homelessness that could serve as a model for other two-year colleges eager to address growing housing insecurities among their students.

Cerritos College in Norwalk and Los Angeles-based Jovenes held a ribbon-cutting on Thursday for The Village, which comprises modern townhomes with a mix of free and affordable rental options that will house eligible students ages 18 to 25. It is the first such project in California and perhaps the country.

At the ribbon-cutting, President/Superintendent Jose Fierro noted the number of students who are housing and food insecure at his college, in the state and across the country. At Cerritos, 55 percent of students are housing insecure and of those 15 percent are homeless, he said. Only 6 percent of students at his college who experienced homelessness receive housing assistance. Across the state, nearly half of community college students are housing insecure or homeless.

“This is exactly what community colleges do. They respond to the needs of a community,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, who streamed in to offer comments prior to the opening.

Oakley gave kudos to the college’s leadership for thinking creatively and not waiting for the state to develop a plan to address the issue of housing-insecure college students.

Cerritos College President/Superintendent Jose Fierro (left) at Thursday’s ribbon-cutting with Andrea Marchetti, executive director of Jovenes.

The project illustrates how various community partners can work together and leverage their networks and resources to make something happen, Fierro said.

“I highly encourage other community colleges, not only in the state but in the nation, to look at the resources that they all have available in their backyard and pull those resources together to address the housing situation.”

Several other community colleges across the U.S. are testing other ways to help homeless students. For example, in Massachusetts, a state pilot program launched last year is housing a small group of homeless community college students at nearby four-year colleges and universities. In Montana, Dawson Community College is helping unaccompanied youths who are homeless or aging out of foster care.

‘One less stress off my mind’

The opening included a short video of two of the five students already living in the units who provided a tour of their units and explained how being able to live there has helped them. Anthony Miller, who plays on the college’s football team, would head to a nearby park after games to study and sleep. Completing work online was not possible because he didn’t have internet access. Now, he can shower, study, sleep, get online – and his grades have improved. And the campus is only a short walk away so transportation is not an issue.

“It’s one less stress off my mind. I can focus on school and being an athlete, like a normal kid,” he said.

Fierro noted that feeling safe and not being hungry is important to students’ success. The housing project is among several efforts at the Cerritos to help students succeed. In March, Cerritos and several other California community colleges each received a three-year, $2.1 million state grant to help homeless and housing insecure students find reliable shelter as part of a pilot program.

Fierro noted that over the past five years the number of degrees and certificated awarded at Cerritos has more than doubled from 2,129 to 5,300 this year.

Looking ahead

The 1,477-square-foot townhomes can house up to 28 occupants. Jovenes also has set up safety protocols in light of the coronavirus. For example, it keeps some units open in case there’s a need for isolation.

The college purchased the land using about $4 million from the district general fund with support from its board. Jovenes holds the master lease and will provide day-to-day management, resident selection, on-site supervision, case management and maintenance.

College officials hope to continue to work with Jovenes and possibly develop housing for single-parent students, families and older homeless students.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.