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Homeless at UCLA: Financial strain causes students to make their school a home

Illustration: Maria Esmeralda Renteria

During midterms and finals, UCLA becomes a temporary home for fatigued students slumped over half-opened books. But for some, sleeping on campus has become more permanent.

“The longest I stayed was last quarter. I stayed here for two whole weeks,” said Jose a second-year molecular cell and developmental biology student.

As an AB540 student, Jose doesn’t receive financial aid, and is unable to afford housing. Sleeping on an office floor three days a week has become the norm. Jose’s commute is five hours round trip; he boards four buses, traveling 30 miles each way.

Packing up a large duffle bag as if going on vacation, Jose prepares for his two week stay on the floor in a small corner office.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states that a person is classified as homeless if their nighttime residence is a public place, not intended as “a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

While he does not consider himself homeless, Jose does not deny the impact his situation has on his academic performance.

“Sleeping on the floor gets to you, your back hurts and then you don’t sleep sometimes you just do all nighters, so it does affect you academically,” said Jose. “Not having food to eat that affects you mentally.”

Jose is reluctant to contact administrators out of fear of being told he can’t sleep in the office he regularly occupies.

“I can’t categorically tell you that I’ve dealt with a homeless student,” said Enku Gelaye, Executive Officer of Student Affairs.

Gelaye leads the Economic Crisis Response Team (ECR) in the office of the Vice Chancellor, a group of twelve university administrators that develop solutions for students experiencing financial crisis.

Through a referral system, the ECR Team connects students with on-campus and off-campus resources.

Though Gelaye is confident that solutions for students experiencing housing issues due to financial crisis can be found in their financial aid package, she acknowledges that for undocumented students this is not an option.

“Where I’ve seen the most direct impact with the increase of tuition has been for undocumented students; we just don’t have a financial aid solution,” said Gelaye.
The recent increases in tuition and proposed $500 million cuts to the University of California system, students face increased financial challenges.

Anticipating a rise in commuter students, Gelaye stated that talks have begun regarding possible sleep options on campus, although she is not sure what those would look like and will not be implemented soon.

For the past few years, AB540 students have organized a “crash catalogue” to address housing needs through the student group Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS).

According to Charlene Gomez, Membership Chair for IDEAS, the network currently consists of six off-campus residents that can house students.

Of the 100 students on the list, 50-75 utilize the service each quarter by contacting Gomez. Gomez then arranges accommodations for the student.

The catalogue officially began in 2010, though it was informally practiced prior to this time.

“AB540 students are not welcomed institutionally as far as what resources they have access to,” said Gomez, “so we have to create our own.”

While Jose has used the catalogue service in the past, the limited availability has forced him to continue sleeping on the office floor. Until an alternative housing option becomes available, he will roll out his sleeping bag and settle in for another night on campus.

Out on a Mission: NAK volunteers at a center for the homeless

Driving eastward on Interstate 10 at 5 a.m., the most obvious thing I can see is the lack of traffic, but as I look closer, I see the change from the affluent Westside neighborhood around UCLA to the economically-ravaged downtown area known as Skid Row.

With fellow members of Nu Alpha Kappa (NAK), we’ve made our way to the Midnight Mission center, located in one of the city’s poorest areas. Even at this hour, people are starting to line up outside the center to receive breakfast.

Twelve of us come to help serve food and clean the center. As we make our way into the center, everyone is quiet and sleepy.

“It’s hard for a lot of us to get up at this time, but we know that it’s for a good cause so it makes it a lot easier,” said Adan Calzada, a fourth-year sociology student and NAK fraternity member.

To most NAK members, it is nothing new to volunteer at the center.  But some do not know what to expect for their first time in this part of town.

“A lot of [members] are not familiar with these parts of Los Angeles. As for me, I grew up in South Central Los Angeles,” said Jose Moran, a fourth-year sociology student and member of the fraternity.

As we first walk in, I notice young kids, the youngest looking like he is three years old. At first, the children stay close to their parents, but after a while, they start playing around with fraternity members, and their smiles light up the fraternity members’ faces.

“The hardest part of coming here is always seeing how many kids live in these conditions… we try to interact with the kids because they are the future of this country. When people think of homeless individuals, they never realize that there are many children that are homeless as well,” said Moran.

The homeless thank the members as they serve food.

“There is no greater feeling than when people thank you and how you can really see it in their faces how much this really means to them,” said Victor Chan, a fourth-year biology student and first-time volunteer at the center.

After the food is served, it is time to clean. The members are now livelier than they were when they first arrived. They talk and make jokes not just with each other, but with the leaders at the center as they sweep, mop and wash the center, making sure that it will be clean for lunch.

But a difficult issue for NAK members is that they are not able to do more for the people on Skid Row. Many times they feel that they have to turn their backs on the individuals in need.

“It’s great how we come out and give three to four hours of our time, but the most important thing we can do is not forget when we go back to UCLA,” said Moran.