Housing and food insecurity is getting more attention at UC Berkeley as the scope and scale of these crises are beginning to be truly understood. But despite the work here on campus and across the UC system to tackle the issues, one side of the problem continues to be neglected. The reality of the circumstance is that many students on campus are not facing housing and food insecurity for the first time. For many, myself included, this is a familiar struggle. Understanding this component of housing and food insecurity makes the issue even more urgent to address because in a place of higher education, the first thing one should learn is that being chronically hungry and facing housing insecurity is not normal, let alone acceptable.
Like many people on campus, I grew up in a low-income household with a mother who worked day and night to make ends meet. Week after week, bills became overwhelming. I would see my mother’s mental health suffer as stress and anxiety would come over her. “Never live this way, Anthony,” my mother would tell me after we would get into fights that originated from money problems. “Please don’t continue this cycle. Do better, so you don’t have to work like a dog and live paycheck to paycheck.” Many of my peers have had very similar familial experiences. We have seen our parents work more than 40 hours a week and yet remain unable to fix the car, buy enough food or make rent. I never forgot what my mother told me, and I strove to work as hard as she did so I could help lift my family out of poverty through pursuing higher education. But now that I have elbowed my way into college, now that I have begun working toward a career and now that I am studying at the No. 1 public university in the world, I still suffer from many of the same pains my mother prayed I would escape.
The motivation of many low-income first generation students such as myself is to escape the grips of poverty that we have grown up in. Yet college brings with it many of the same pains, frustrations and anxieties that we had supposedly transcended when we became Golden Bears. Many of us who come from low-income households expected a new beginning, not the same old desperate struggle. Many of us expected long nights in the library and intense examinations as the big hurdles between us and a degree. But in my lived experience and the lived experiences of many on campus, the biggest obstacle between us and the degree is unmanageable living costs and chronic hunger. A large number of us low-income students who suffer from housing and food insecurity move from couch to couch for entire semesters. This make-shift living arrangement has taken a heavy toll on many of my friends who consistently suffer both emotionally and academically because of these rough circumstances. Furthermore, the few of us who do have the resources available to find stable housing are unable to afford a location anywhere close to campus. These locations can be three to five miles away and are accompanied by a commute that further limits our academic potential. So these experiences cumulate into striking irony given that the whole point of college (for most) was to forge a life absent of all these hardships.
Frankly, my mother didn’t know what UC Berkeley was when I got in. That is the way it is for many low-income first-generation students who are currently suffering from housing and food insecurity. Our parents did not understand that UC Berkeley is one of the most elite institutions in the world, but they were proud. They were proud because this meant change. This meant a better life. They might not have known of the notorious alumni who have walked these halls, but they were excited. They were excited because this meant progress. College meant a life absent of back-breaking labor for minimum wage. College meant a life absent of eviction notices, void checks and overdue payment slips. College meant freedom. So when my mother waved and wept tears of joy on move-in day, she did so because she believed that her son had escaped the struggle. Yet, I still struggle to eat regularly and am barely able to make rent each month. So even though college is supposed to be full of new experiences, for many of us on campus, it brings with it the same old collection of struggles.
Therefore, as housing and food insecurity become understood to be the campuswide crises that they are, one important takeaway should be widely understood: For a large number of students suffering, this struggle is all we have ever known. For many, the challenges, the trials and the hardships that come with housing and food insecurity are not novel. And the acknowledgment of this truth underscores the issue and highlights our need to act collectively in addressing these crises.
Anthony Carrasco is an ASUC senator.