Valley Voices

Parking lots aren’t “paved paradise” for homeless students. State bill offers wrong solution

Fresno City College
Fresno City College Contributed

What do you think about a bill being considered in the California Legislature requiring community colleges with parking facilities to grant overnight access to enrolled homeless students to sleep in their cars?

Assembly Bill 302, authored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, has brought heightened attention to the growing crisis of student homelessness in California. Nearly one in five students are homeless or don’t have stable housing, according to a survey conducted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. When applied to Fresno City College, this means 6,000 students are experiencing housing insecurity.

While Assemblyman Berman’s willingness to address this crisis is admirable, concerns remain about this bill.

goldsmith fcc
Dr. Carole Goldsmith, president of Fresno City College. FCC Contributed

For instance, it creates a mandate for community colleges to address the sanitation and public safety needs of not only homeless students sleeping in their cars, but, also our entire student population, faculty and staff. Community college parking lots vary widely in size and scope. Some already have parking lots near bathroom facilities with sufficient access to public safety officers. And, they don’t have harsh summer heat or inclement winter weather. But, what about campuses like ours? With tightening budgets and increasing costs, where will we get the funding to implement the mandates?

Safety concerns are real. According to the California League of Community Colleges, it is estimated each community college will need three to four security officers seven nights a week. Locally, that equates to more than a quarter million dollars in salaries alone. Cost estimates for statewide implementation are estimated at $68,879,328.

Fresno County and the city of Fresno both have local ordinances prohibiting urban camping and vehicle dwelling. While these don’t apply to state property, is it worth singling out our campuses and usurping local control because we can? What are the costs to implement CEQA regulations that do apply to us?

This brings me to the issue of equity.

California Community Colleges serve the greatest proportion of low-income students and students of color. Sadly, less than 10% of our 2.2 million students receive Cal Grants.

Our students comprise 74% of California’s public higher education system. Yet, community colleges receive the lowest per-student funding — only $8,099 per student compared to $17,784 for the CSU student and $32,593 for UC.

By only requiring the bill for community colleges and not CSU or UC campuses, it sends the message that living in parking lots is good enough for our students, but certainly couldn’t be endured by UC or CSU students.

The truth is, every student in our state deserves better. No human being should have to resort to sleep in their car in a parking lot. We can and must do better for our students who, we must remember, are our future.

Doing better starts with our state meeting the true financial aid needs of students attending California Community Colleges. Our students face tight eligibility rules and low levels of financial aid grants to cover costs of food, transportation and housing, and many simply can’t meet basic needs and be academically successful. Yet, AB 302 makes no attempt to address or solve this very real issue.

AB 302 suggests the state mandate process will reimburse community colleges for its implementation, but history tells us differently. Reimbursement often doesn’t come to fruition and/or costs are higher than estimated. Reality says the mandate process only offers a way to deflect our state’s social and fiduciary responsibility to another entity.

California must not abandon its responsibility to equitably serve California’s 2.2 million community college students. What about giving our homeless students referrals to county and social service providers with the scope, expertise and designated funding to really help them, and funneling resources expended to implement AB 302 instead to increased student financial aid, housing partnerships, student emergency grants and student success programs ensuring students enter the workforce and make a living wage?

I respectfully urge our state leaders to focus on long-term solutions that truly address the challenges our community college students face, eliminate bias in higher education funding and provide options to equitably support their success, give them dignity and treat them as fellow human beings deserving the best.

Dr. Carole Goldsmith is the president of Fresno City College and can be reached at carole.goldsmith@fresnocitycollege.edu.

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