Homeless UC Berkeley students create support network in lieu of campus resources

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

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Campus junior Taylor Harvey became homeless on her 16th birthday.

After her mom lost her job, Harvey, then 13 years old, assumed responsibility of paying their rent, and she has been employed ever since. But three years later, her mother failed to send the rent to their landlord, and they were evicted.

Since that day, Harvey has been housing insecure. She said she’s experienced “nearly all” of the forms of housing insecurity over the years, having lived in cars and with family members and faced outright homelessness.

Harvey was always a good student — for her, college was the way out. But housing insecurity made it impossible to focus on or even attend high school regularly. The stress of a 3.5-hour commute to school from her relative’s house on top of working a job caused her grades to drop — all the way down to A-‘s rather than her usual straight A’s.

My grades started declining, (which was) really detrimental to my mental health, because I knew that I was my only way out,” Harvey said.

Teachers began to notice her change in behavior and offered her help, one even paying for her to stay in a hotel room for a night. Eventually, a friend’s parents offered her a more stable position in their home. The family unofficially fostered her until she finished high school.

Harvey knew college was her path towards stability, but as a first-generation college student whose mother didn’t graduate high school, she didn’t know anything about the application process — and didn’t have the luxury of making applications a priority.

I was way more concerned about eating than taking SAT prep,” Harvey said. “I couldn’t focus on school.”

With the help of teachers, counselors and mentors, Harvey applied to 28 schools and was rejected by 24 of them — including UC Berkeley. One of her mentors, a campus alumnus, insisted she submit an appeal because her unusual story “didn’t fit into a dropdown menu.” On appeal, Harvey was admitted with a full ride.

Harvey arrived on campus believing that all of her expenses would be taken care of. But the August before her junior year, she found out that she had not been approved for on-campus housing, which dramatically dropped her financial aid package. After living on campus for two years, she had lost her status as a homeless student.

The campus required she go through an extensive independent student declaration process, which included providing documentation from her mother, who has remained homeless and therefore lacked much of the paperwork the campus requested. Harvey began to fear she was going to have to drop out of school. Eventually, she got her financial aid, but only after forcing her way into what she called the escalation offices on the second floor of the Financial Aid Office.

I just thought that once I got here, I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore, I wouldn’t have to worry about money,” Harvey said. “I worked hard my entire life to get here, basically, and then it felt like the system was working against me.”

But Harvey said many homeless students don’t have the ability or knowledge to navigate bureaucracy and advocate for themselves as she did, and they shouldn’t have to. So with the help of students she met on Sproul Plaza advocating for homeless students, Harvey founded the Homeless Student Union, or HSU, to fight housing insecurity throughout the university.

The HSU currently has an emergency housing network that connects students who lose their housing to Berkeley residents who can immediately provide them with a place to stay, but only temporarily. The program has placed more than 20 students in housing, according to Harvey, and the union is currently working with the campus’s Residential Student Services Program to create a more official emergency housing option.

The group has worked with the Basic Needs Coalition and other relief organizations on campus to streamline services provided to underserved communities on campus. For example, many services provided by CalFresh were only available to specific groups of students such as student parents. Harvey and other members of the Homeless Student Union are working to open up these programs to a broader range of students in need.

“Taylor and the HSU are brilliant and powerful student leaders. … The Homeless Student Union is really the student leadership of the effort,” said Basic Needs Security Committee chair Ruben Canedo. “They are able to function in ways that the campus isn’t able to function because of rules, regulations and policies.”

Canedo said the HSU is able to provide services that the campus cannot without going through bureaucratic processes. The Basic Needs Committee and ASUC Student Advocate’s Office, or SAO, are working to implement a housing insecurity and homelessness protocol for the campus.

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said in an email that housing is a major concern for the university and that the campus wants to make sure students know there are campus resources available year-round.

“We recognize that the cost of living is high for Berkeley students,” Ratliff said in an email. “(I)f a student is struggling to find the financial means to secure housing the university has many options available to help students finance the full cost of their education, including tuition and living expenses.”

Ratliff said the campus encourages students to contact the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office to discuss funding, as well as to look into Cal Rentals, Student Legal Services and the Students of Concern Committee for further assistance.

Students receive financial aid based on estimated cost of attendance packets created by the university. These estimations, however, tend to be underestimated because students are asked how much they are currently paying in rent, and many students asked are in precarious housing situations when they are asked, according to Giovanni D’Ambrosio, director of the Campus Organizing Corps, an office of the EAVP that works toward lobbying against tuition hikes.

D’Ambrosio said the UC Office of the President has agreed to work with students on creating a UC-wide standard of living, which he said he hopes would note all forms of housing insecurity. Canedo said they have updated the cost of attendance survey for students and will update the cost once they get the results of the survey.

ASUC Student Advocate and campus fourth-year Selina Lao said the SAO began working on the protocol this semester after it received a $55,000 grant from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services Fees and the Wellness Fund.

“Ultimately, we hope to get this program running this semester,” Lao said. “There are just a couple of things to finish on the administrative side.”

The campus has never had protocol like this before, according to Canedo. He said the committee, which was started in 2013, originally focused on food insecurity after the UC Undergraduate Experience survey revealed that one in five students frequently skipped meals to save money.

“We learned that students didn’t have enough money for food because they were spending so much money in housing,” Canedo said. “Other students would tell us that they were sleeping in cars, couchsurfing and bouncing from Airbnb to Airbnb.”

Canedo said the committee completed an informal assessment on campus where it surveyed 100 graduate students and 200 undergraduate students about housing insecurity — 11 percent of the 200 undergraduates and eight percent of the graduates reported having experienced homelessness or housing insecurity. About 58,000 students experienced homelessness in the 2012-13 academic year, according to FAFSA data.

The campus’s survey does not have a sample size large enough to extrapolate the statistics to the whole university population, Lao said, but it was enough to put the issue on the table. Canedo added that the campus could not have predicted the currently widespread need for on-campus housing, a result of the housing costs rising at the same time that UC Berkeley expanded its incoming class size.

Even though the campus has just begun to address housing insecurity, Lao said that she’s been aware of homelessness and housing insecurity among the student population in the 3.5 years she has worked for the SAO.

“Experiencing having to tell someone that the university doesn’t have any resources to help you have a safe place to stay tonight, that was really the motivation to help set up this program,” Lao said.

Lao explained that while she was a caseworker for students, she saw a variety of problems surrounding housing, such as domestic and dating violence, abusive roommates, mental health issues and financial struggles. The protocol, she hopes, will be designed to accommodate many different problems and offer immediate solutions to students.

While they have received a lot of support for the protocol, Lao added that finding time for administration, students, staff and faculty to meet and discuss how to tackle the issue has been a challenge along with navigating the campus bureaucracy.

Harvey said she’s been adamant in keeping an amicable relationship with campus, an approach that has been successful for the HSU so far. But she noted that while the HSU is currently “playing it nice” with the campus, it will take a more aggressive approach if necessary.

“A lot of those students aren’t like me. … They don’t demand what they want.” Harvey said. “That’s not of their own volition, but in order to advocate and provide resources for those students, the university needs to be aggressive.”

Contact Pressly Pratt and Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected].

A previous version of this article misspelled Adam Ratliff’s name.