Students highlight housing insecurity with creation of Homeless Student Union

Priyanka Karthikeyan/Staff

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Nearly a dozen students convened in Dwinelle Hall on Tuesday night as part of the Homeless Student Union’s first general meeting.

The union’s long-term goal is eradicating student homelessness and housing insecurity. In the meantime, it plans to to advocate for the homeless student community and create more resources for this group at weekly meetings.

Despite ranking high in affordability in terms of tuition, the campus’s student housing‘s cost of living and the cost of living in the surrounding city is among the highest in the nation.

Taylor Harvey, a co-founder of the group who has herself experienced homelessness as a high school student, said these students remain largely invisible to their peers and the administration on campus.

She added that the campus resources for housing insecurity, specifically, are limited, and that by raising awareness of these issues, the Homeless Student Union aims to effect change. At the meeting, students brought up suggestions such as permanent roll-over meal points and housing availability during academic breaks.

“Our voices matter in contributing to policy changes on campus,” Harvey said at the meeting. “We’re an effort to gather those voices together and have them heard by administration.”

Co-founders Harvey, Anthony Nassih, Calixtho Lopes and Wenjie Yang created the union to pursue avenues such as guaranteed housing for homeless and housing insecure students, meal point donations and an emergency housing fund for students.

The campus currently offers various programs to address food insecurity, such as an emergency relief food pantry and assistance in applying to CalFresh — a statewide food stamps program — and the Food Assistance Program.

According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, the campus has many programs to help students experiencing financial insecurity, including housing insecurity, such as peer advising programs and Cal Rentals, which helps students looking for off-campus housing.

Harvey was homeless when she was 16 and has been housing insecure ever since. She said she has stayed in shelters, couch surfed and lived in cars. For students living with housing insecurity, she said, unexpected accidents can quickly spiral into impossible predicaments.

“If something were to happen like if I were to lose my laptop,” Harvey said. “(I) wouldn’t be able to pay rent that month, I wouldn’t be able to eat for the next week.”

ASUC Senator Chris Yamas said UC Berkeley fares particularly poorly when compared to other UC campuses in terms of housing availability.

“I don’t think the administration has fully wanted to face the extent of this issue,” Yamas said. “They’re plagued with underfunding, they don’t want to think about all that they need to do that they don’t think they can do.”

An ASUC referendum overwhelmingly passed last year demanding that the ASUC work together with campus administration to combat the student housing crisis by creating 6,000 new beds to match the amount of on-campus housing at UC Berkeley with several other UC campuses.

Yamas added that he and ASUC Senator Helen Yuan are working on creating a comprehensive housing affordability website which would include available housing listings and financial opportunities for students, which they hope to launch by spring 2017.

According to FAFSA data, 58,000 students across the country qualified as homeless in the 2012-13 academic year. Harvey said she hopes to eventually see these numbers fall to zero.

“We are a self-destructive organization, I hope that we don’t exist in a few years,” Harvey said at the meeting. “I hope that there are no homeless students by the time I graduate.”

Contact Pressly Pratt at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @presslypratt.