The Invisible Student: A Tale of Homelessness at UCLA and USC

Last year, Kaitlin* was an energetic undergraduate at the University of Southern California (USC). With a double major in business and international relations, she’s intelligent, engaging and intuitive.

In fact, Kaitlin looked like many other young women at USC, with a stack of books in her backpack, a youthful energy that’s as much a testament to her age as it is to the Southern California spirit and a group of close, studious girlfriends who talked and laughed while scrolling on their phones and walking to class.

There was only one difference between Kaitlin and her peers: Last year, Kaitlin was almost homeless.

On a sunny afternoon in March, Kaitlin, dressed in the Trojan colors of gold and cardinal, stopped to gaze at the famous globe that sits atop the School of International Relations. It inspired her to make travel plans, though she’s never traveled anywhere “for fun.”

She tied back her long, blonde hair and walked past another building where one of her former professors held office hours to meet with students. That professor, Kaitlin recalled, was the one who let her sleep on her couch when the dormitories closed for the summer, and Kaitlin didn’t have a place to live.

Kaitlin was familiar with nearly every nook and cranny of campus and knew precisely where bathrooms were located inside various buildings. It was in those bathrooms that she pulled large amounts of toilet paper to use as napkins and paper towels throughout the day and as a substitute for menstrual pads — which she couldn’t afford — during her monthly period.

“I always bled through the toilet paper,” she told  the Journal. “It was terrible to walk into class, bleeding through my jeans. I should have tried to find ways to get free pads on campus, but I had so much more on my mind because I was terrified of having to sleep on the street.”

Last year, Kaitlin was one of the 68,000 college students nationwide who are homeless or facing housing insecurity while trying to complete courses, hold down jobs and inch closer toward graduation.

The figures on college homelessness are staggering, particularly in California. In a 2019 report, the Hope Center — a research and policy institute — confirmed that nearly 20% of students enrolled in the Los Angeles Community College District were listed as homeless, and half of the district’s 250,000 students were considered housing insecure. In Oakland’s Peralta Community College District, 84% of students surveyed reported being homeless or housing insecure in 2017.

In addition to community colleges, the California State University (CSU) system is also facing unprecedented levels of student homelessness. A 2015 CSU study estimated that 10% of the school system’s 460,000 students were homeless at schools ranging from Humboldt State to Cal State Long Beach. In the University of California (UC) system, that figure was five percent in 2016.

“‘Homeless college student’ seems like a contradiction in terms,” Wayne State psychology professor Paul Toro told the New York Times in 2017. “If you’re someone who has the wherewithal to get yourself into college, well, of course you should be immune to homelessness. But that just isn’t the case.”

Each of the 68,000 homeless students in the nation has their own story of resilience, fighting their way to degree as they search for a place to sleep. Here are just a few of their stories:

Kaitlin

Kaitlin was born to a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father in Las Vegas, Nevada. The parents and their six children lived on food stamps, and due to allegations of domestic violence, police were a regular presence in their home. At age ten, Kaitlin was separated from her siblings and placed into foster care, and by the time she was 16, she had moved around to a dozen different homes.

Kaitlin’s relationship with her biological mother, however difficult, was still crucial to her sense of feeling loved and secure. “My mom tried so hard to make our childhood good,” she said. “She would wait in line for hours at the Salvation Army to buy us toys for Christmas, and more than anything, she just wanted to be able to talk to us. But she was mentally ill.”

During her sophomore year of high school, Kaitlin was adopted by a family in Jackson, Mississippi, who, she claims, often “kicked” her out, forcing her to live with friends for weeks at a time. When it came time to apply for college, she had set her sights almost 2,000 miles east of Jackson, at USC.

*Kaitlin, a 2020 graduate of USC who almost became homeless, gazes at a statue of Hecuba, Queen of Troy, at USC Village. Photos by Tabby Refael

“Even if my home life was really bad, I was always going to go to college; that was something I had always known since I was young,” she said.

At USC, Kaitlin qualified for need-based financial aid, but only a few weeks after starting college, her adoptive mother sent her a devastating letter telling her she had been disowned.

“They said that ‘I chose this life,’ meaning leaving Mississippi and coming to California, and they cancelled my health insurance and forced me to send back my modest cell phone,” she said. “Not having a phone like everyone else was really hard, and I badly needed any device with access to Wi-Fi, so I could at least know where my classes were on campus.”

Although USC covered her costs for housing during the first two academic years, Kaitlin soon faced the reality of summer housing. “I couldn’t stay in the dorms any longer, and while everyone else’s parents came to help them move their belongings out, I was alone. I didn’t even have a car, and I put everything I had into some bags, and a kind professor let me stay with her for a few days,” she recalled.

She spent the summer couch-surfing in a 200-square-foot “nasty room over-piled with trash” that belonged to another student, who was soon forced to move out and live in his car because he no longer could afford to pay for housing near USC.

At the start of her junior year, Kaitlin was deeply anxious because she had yet to secure a new job for the year. When her rent for an off-campus apartment was one month overdue, her landlord threatened to evict her.

A representative from a USC support program for former foster children (called Trojan Guardian Scholars) referred Kaitlin to the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) to apply for an immediate loan. Kaitlin’s biggest concern was that she didn’t have a co signer.

With only $3 in her bank account, Kaitlin took a bus to the JFLA office in the Miracle Mile neighborhood. When she received a $1,300 interest-free loan, Kaitlin was overjoyed, but the stress of housing insecurity had begun to take its toll on her academic success.

“I started skipping school because making it to class was the least of my problems,” she said. “I needed to first protect my mental health; I was barely getting by and was living on $10–$15 a week, but I was very resourceful. I bought a few clothes from a local Goodwill, and if having access to a shower was ever an issue, I just didn’t shower.”

JFLA provided critical help in the form of preventative support so Kaitlin wouldn’t find herself homeless. Without a car, her worst fears would have come true.

The organization’s Homeless Student Loan Program was the brainchild of JFLA Executive Director Rachel Grose. Launched in January 2019, it’s the first loan of its kind that doesn’t require a co-signer, and it was exactly what Kaitlin needed to feel a semblance of housing security and continue to attend classes like everyone else.

“Getting through college is hard enough, much less if you are consumed with where you are going to sleep and if you will be safe at night,” Grose told the Journal.

Prevention is at the forefront of JFLA’s services for homeless college students. “The statistics are clear that once a person is on the street, it is much harder to get them back into housing,” said Grose.

In the past year, JFLA has distributed over $121,000 to 21 students, and the repayment rate has stood at an impressive 99%.
Those interested in applying for help may email [email protected].

Increased poverty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the work of JFLA more crucial than ever. “In general, we are making many loans for rent,” Gross said. “The homeless situation in general in L.A. is even more precarious now despite the rent moratorium. Our clients continually tell us they are afraid they will be evicted without a loan from JFLA.”

With fewer housing worries, Kaitlin was able to stay in class and in the summer of 2019, she found an internship in the field of banking. This May, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and business, and she secured a full-time job at the banking firm where she interned. The job also offers health insurance.

“Senior year was more stable because I had somewhere secure to live,” Kaitlin said. “It was the greatest gift.”

August

Last February, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced UCLA and most other colleges to close in-person classes, August*, a 23-year-old who was enrolled in his fourth year of undergraduate studies, sat down at a long table inside Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, home to the nation’s first homeless shelter for college students run by college students. He removed his headphones and proceeded, in a soft-spoken voice, to tell his story.

His parents are Somali refugees who escaped the country’s famine and deadly civil war in the mid-1990s, (the latter resulted in 500,000 deaths and over 1 million displaced people and continues today).

August and his eight siblings were born in San Diego, home to a Somali diaspora community of 10,000. Although his hard work and impressive grades earned him a place at UCLA immediately after high school, the emotional toll of his family’s financial burdens soon wreaked havoc upon his mental health.

“I couldn’t handle the financial pressures anymore because my family has nothing. And the wait to see a therapist at UCLA was too long,” he told the Journal. “On top of everything, I began to have arguments with my roommates on campus and didn’t feel safe anymore. I finally had an emotional breakdown and moved out, even though I didn’t have anywhere to go.”

For months, August couch-surfed with a slew of friends and even took time off from classes. In Spring 2019, August’s counselor at UCLA suggested he apply to Mt. Olive’s student shelter, called Students 4 Students (S4S). In January (before UCLA stopped in-person classes), August re-enrolled in classes, and in 2021, he’s set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics.

One of the most striking aspects of August’s story was that his mother and father believed he still was living in on-campus housing.

“If my parents found out I sleep here, they would never allow it,” he said in February, “and because they can’t afford to help me live in Los Angeles, they would force me to move back down to San Diego.”

The bedroom at Students for Students shelter

This, in effect, was the painful crux of August’s dilemma: He desperately wanted to stay enrolled at UCLA, but if his parents found out he was homeless, he would have had to move back home and enroll at a community college.

When asked how he kept his struggles a secret from his parents, August solemnly admitted his mother and father had neither the time nor the means to visit him in Los Angeles.

“My parents work so much that they can’t even come here to see where I live,” he said.

For August, the best part of staying overnight at the shelter was “not having to be at the mercy of people who let me couch-surf, no matter how kind they are, and not having to wait outside their door to have them let me in.”

Before the pandemic, students spent the night there and left by 7 a.m. to accommodate a preschool program at Mt. Olive. The students were able to return to the shelter at 7 p.m. During closed hours, August attended classes and spent time on campus. On weekends, he saw friends or passed the hours at various campus libraries. He loved that a hot meal (dinner and breakfast) was always waiting for him at the shelter.

“I’m really glad I’m at the shelter,” he said in February. “They’ve gone above and beyond for me.”

When asked whether his seven siblings knew about his housing situation, August said they live all over the country — from Southern California to the Midwest — and he communicated with them via video telephoning outside the shelter, so they never suspected anything,

August and his older brother are the first in his family to graduate college. Back in February, he was trying to find a job earning some extra money in a restaurant, although, as a linguistics major, his dream is to work with language researchers.

“I never realized how good it would feel to know I’m about to complete something,” he said about finishing UCLA next year. “I guess at some point, maybe at graduation, I’ll have to tell my family about everything.”

The S4S shelter is closed due to the pandemic.

The Importance of Saying “Yes”

On a cold night in February, the parking lot of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica was nearly full. Before the pandemic, a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous regularly rented space at the church. As the rain began gently falling over vehicles parked outside, nearly a dozen young people passed by a sign that read, “A church for the whole community,” before opening lock boxes to gain access to the building.

The residents of S4S homeless shelter had arrived for the evening.

Some of them headed straight for the kitchen, where they helped volunteer student supervisors prepare dinner. On the menu that evening: Sloppy Joes, made with fresh ground beef and bell peppers. As one of the residents began chopping red onions with the skill and precision of someone who’s worked in a restaurant kitchen, he told everyone there’s a story behind his skill, but he wasn’t comfortable sharing it. Not yet.

Other students quickly filled “the study,” a room with a large table, black office chairs, a piano, and a four-way computer screen that showed images from security cameras outside. There were many evenings when residents stayed up all night to study for finals or write papers.

Upstairs, an innocuous room with five bunk beds accommodated ten people. Like a typical college dorm room, blankets, backpacks and clothes were strewn around the beds.

Whether a large dormitory building or a rowdy fraternity house, we often think of collegiate housing as anything but a homeless shelter. But in 2015, UCLA graduate student Louis Tse had a vision for the nation’s first homeless shelter for college students.

At that time, Tse was living in his car to save money. On his backseat windows hung family photos, and he ate non-perishable food he kept in a duffle bag.

“Many students persist despite the odds, yet there are many who do not — the margin for error is razor-thin,” Tse told the Journal. “It’s much harder to focus in class when you don’t have enough food to eat; it’s much harder to do homework without a home.”

 “It’s much harder to do homework without a home.” — Students 4 Students founder Louis Tse

He quickly recruited his good friend, Luke Shaw, and the two spent many nights and weekends developing the idea. Tse then visited 50 local houses of worship with the idea of using their facilities overnight for a student shelter. They all declined.

That was the case until Darci Niva, Director of the Westside Coalition for Homelessness, Health, and Hunger, introduced Louis to Reverend Eric Shafer, the senior pastor at Mt. Olive.

“The shelter was/is Louis’s dream,” Shafer told the Journal. “Without his vision, there would be no shelter. We were the 51st house of worship he turned to, and we said ‘yes.’”

When asked why Mt. Olive’s leaders and congregation of 250 people agreed to open the space to homeless students, Shafer responded, “Why not? We had the facilities, so why wouldn’t we do it?”

The result was a homeless shelter, operated by an organization Tse and Shaw founded called S4S. According to its website, S4S “meets the basic needs of homeless college students from all area schools, while connecting them with resources to finalize post-shelter housing plans and a path to graduation.”

S4S, formerly known as Bruin Shelter, had been used by students enrolled at schools such as UCLA, Santa Monica College (SMC), and Loyola Marymount University (LMU). One advantage of the shelter is that it’s located directly along a bus route to UCLA and is within walking distance of SMC.

When open, the shelter provides ten beds, hot meals, access to a shower and a washer/dryer, and three volunteer supervisors, known as “RAs,” or Resident Assistants, on-site at all times, known as “RAs,” a term commonly used to refer to a “Resident Assistant” in a campus dormitory. The RAs are all UCLA students, and incredibly, there are 90 of them who rotate schedules to sleep overnight at the shelter. Each year, S4S volunteers raise $20,000 to provide hot meals for residents.

Student resident advisors helping prepare dinner in the kitchen at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church

When Mt. Olive ran into difficulties with the City of Santa Monica due to a need for major renovations and a zoning change, its “angel,” according to Shafer, was Michael Folonis, a local architect. The shelter also received help from the Santa Monica City Council, the Office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.

“Our church leaders as well as our neighbors have been amazing, and the shelter actually makes the neighborhood safer, because it’s one of the few buildings here that’s never left unattended overnight,” Shafer said.

Shafer acknowledges the concerns other houses of worship have about giving homeless students access to their facilities, but makes an important argument: Although it’s understandably difficult for most of us to reach out to the homeless on the street — particularly those with mental health or addiction problems — there’s a soft start in reaching out to college students, most of whom simply fell on hard times and lack a basic safety net of parental help. Many of those students, Shafer noted, are LGBTQ youth who were kicked out of their homes.

“Why are homeless college students invisible?” Shafer asked. “Because they don’t look like the homeless population we’re used to seeing; they couch-surf and take showers at the school gym.”

“Why are homeless college students invisible? Because they don’t look like the homeless population we’re used to seeing; they couch-surf and take showers at the school gym.” —Reverend Eric Shafer

Shafer has a message to other faith communities about “the importance of saying ‘yes.’” He challenges leaders nationwide to ask themselves, “What does it mean to be a community of faith in the twenty-first century?”

For its part, Mt. Olive was once the largest Lutheran church west of the Mississippi River, but as with many houses of worship, its size and impact dwindled over time. “The shelter and the community involvement have been the resurgence of this place,” Shafer said.

Shafer’s passion and vision have many roots, including growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and watching his schoolteacher parents deal with their students through patience and compassion. He is also inspired by biblical verses, most notably Matthew 25:40, which states, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Tse, who once slept in his car and parked anywhere he could find Wi-Fi to complete his coursework, is now a thermal engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Shaw, his S4S co-founder, also works at JPL, as a mechanical engineer.

When UCLA closed in-person classes in March, the residents of S4S still remained at the shelter. They left in June, as residents do each year, because the shelter isn’t open during the summer (due to the unavailability of RAs).

“In March, all the UCLA students were told they had to attend classes from home. Well, for our residents, this was their home,” Shafer said. RAs worked hard to get all of the residents into alternative housing after June. Although they are unable to work directly at the shelter, the leaders of S4S at UCLA continueto advocate for homeless students on the state and national level. They’re also working with students who send them online inquiries, helping them find alternative food and housing. The student group is currently led by its president, senior Michelle Lu.

Shafer hopes the shelter will re-open in January 2021, but has received no confirmation.

Reverend Eric Shafer

Before the pandemic, a shelter came to life when two students at UCLA’s crosstown rival USC, Esther Cha and Abigail Leung, co-founded Koreatown’s Trojan Shelter. Like their colleagues at UCLA, Cha and Leung were aided by a passionate student board, and the shelter is operated by its umbrella organization, S4S. Trojan Shelter is currently led by student co-presidents Hannah Mulroe and Cathy Wang.

Trojan Shelter opened in November 2019 in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. As with the shelter at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Trojan Shelter had a team of undergraduate volunteers from USC, three of whom were tasked with overnight supervision every evening. Many of the residents at Trojan Shelter were enrolled at nearby trade and technical colleges.

Although the S4S shelter at UCLA remains closed, Trojan Shelter is open, with three residents and one paid RA — a smaller number than usual due to COVID-19 safety concerns. “They’re in a house and can isolate the facility much better,” said Mt. Olive’s Shafer, now a sponsor of both the S4S and Trojan shelters .

Once the shelter near UCLA reopens, its regular housing requirements will be in effect, which means that student residents at both shelters must be between the ages of 18-24 and enrolled full-time at a local college or university. The shelter has a strict policy against alcohol, smoking, drugs and guns, and RAs are trained to deal with various emergencies. Residents stay for one semester or the whole year, and word-of-mouth is key in letting local students know that the shelter exists (applications are online at www.s4sla.org).

“We, as a society, should intervene so our students can use their smarts on their books, not on finding a safe place to sleep every night,” said S4S’ Tse. “There is immense human talent we are leaving on the table. You might be helping a future MacArthur ‘genius grant’ award winner, someone who’s majoring in the same field you studied, or someone who might save a life, maybe even yours or mine.”

A whiteboard with a hopeful message at Students for Students shelter

“The Most Pernicious Crisis in Our Midst”

“Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said about the state’s homelessness crisis during his second State of the State on February 19, 2020. In a telling deviation from custom, Newsom’s speech focused almost exclusively on the state’s housing crisis.

The term “crisis” is a devastatingly apt term for homelessness in California. In 2019, homelessness in Los Angeles increased 12% from the prior year (with a 17% and 19% increase in San Francisco and Sacramento, respectively). With the state’s homelessness population ballooning up to 151,000, Newsom’s state budget is set to direct more than $1 billion toward the crisis.

“No amount of progress can camouflage the most pernicious crisis in our midst,” Newsom said, “the ultimate manifestation of poverty: homelessness.”

In 2019, Newsom proposed adding $10 million to the $30 million he sought in his January budget of the same year to help homeless college students, although he stopped short of expanding the Cal Grant program, which would cover all costs for food and rent for students in need.

“This hunger, homeless and housing crisis is real at UCs, community colleges and CSUs,” he stated in his address.

That reality was depicted in a 2018 documentary short made by UC Berkeley student Robbie Li, titled “Invisible Students: Homelessness at UC Berkeley,” which followed two Berkeley undergraduates, Leo and Tavi, as they struggled to attend classes while being homeless.

“There is immense power in storytelling,” Li told the Journal. “Change is gradual and incremental, so we need good storytelling to keep laser-focused on the issue. I think the documentary was a good attempt at telling authentic stories about student struggles, and I hope there [is] more organic storytelling, which would emerge and shed light on student experiences.”

Gimme Shelter

“This is a disturbing reality, and one from which any leader—or individual—of conscience cannot turn their face away,” Dr. Kathryn Jeffery, President of SMC, said in an interview with the Journal in regards to the nearly 20 percent of California community college students who reported being homeless. “Finding ways to meaningfully address these issues is a topic of discussion at every conference I have recently attended,” Jeffrey claimed in March.

SMC works with community organizations, such as Safe Place for Youth (SPY), St. Josephs Center, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and S4S, and also matches homeless students with case managers to ensure they can access housing. But its most inspiring success is in the realm of combating food insecurity among college students. In February, SMC announced a partnership with the social enterprise Everytable to open the first SmartFridge Lounge on a college campus (located at the SMC Center for Media and Design).

Back in early March, Jeffrey described the Lounge: “In lieu of paying rent, Everytable would donate 300-500 affordable, delicious and healthy meals per week to SMC’s new centralized food pantry. It will have refrigeration for these meals as well as all the fresh produce previously made available through a weekly free farmers market. Students who are food insecure can come pick this food up for free!”

Unfortunately, the Lounge was shut down due to the pandemic. “As a result, the College and the SMC Foundation quickly pivoted and implemented a free meal delivery program, called the Meal Project, which sends seven fresh, healthy Everytable meals to hundreds of students each week,” Jeffrey said. “To date, we have delivered over 120,000 meals to 17,000 students. Everytable continues to be a vibrant, critical partner in our fight to end food insecurity for all students.”

At SMC, the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the college’s efforts to combat student food insecurity. “SMC’s ten food closets located throughout the campus, the new centralized food pantry that was just days shy of a launch, the free Corsair farmer’s market and a food voucher program funded by Associated Students were just some of the on-ground resources no longer accessible to students as a result of COVID-19,” Jeffrey said.

But the college pursued new initiatives to ensure students’ access to food: a drive-through pop-up food stand (spearheaded by the SMC Foundation); the weekly meal delivery program; and access to a social worker who can help students apply for CalFresh assistance (formerly known as California’s Food Stamp program) remotely. “These food resources are essential to ensure students can be successful in the virtual academic environment,” Jeffrey said.

According to a spring 2020 survey by the Hope Center, 44% of two-year college students, such as those who attend SMC or other community colleges, are struggling with food insecurity. In addition to hunger, hygiene is a growing struggle for many college students who are housing insecure. In September 2016, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 1995 into law, which ensured homeless students access to on-campus showers at community colleges.

More information about SMC’s food security programs may be found on this website.

Safe Parking Here

Kaitlin, the USC student who was almost forced to live on the street, stressed that homeless college students are often invisible. In her case, neither her classmates nor her on-campus co-workers knew she had nowhere to live.

“I looked like the typical USC girl, but I was very poor,” she said. “And when you’re actually attending classes alongside someone every day, everyone just assumes you go back ‘home’ at the end of the day.”

“I look like the typical USC girl, but I’m very poor. And when you’re actually attending classes alongside someone every day, everyone just assumes you go back ‘home’ at the end of the day.” — Kaitlin

Even before the pandemic, college students could often find themselves laid off from a job or suddenly without access to parental assistance. A $200 monthly increase in rent could be enough to force a student who is already living month-to-month out of an apartment and into his or her vehicle (if he or she owns one).

In fact, more than one-third of Los Angeles County’s unsheltered homeless population is forced to live in their cars, and before the pandemic, when overnight parking was restricted in many areas, they often received citations. Without funds to pay outstanding citations, these individuals often lost their cars and were forced onto the street.

Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas currently serves as a commissioner (and former chairperson) for LAHSA, which oversees safe parking strategies for the City and County of Los Angeles. With over 20 sites, LAHSA helps with everything from financial assistance to connecting participants to case managers. It also provides grants to help prevent homelessness.

LAHSA’s former chair, Sarah Dusseault, knows firsthand that no one is immune to the homelessness crisis. In a poignant 2014 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Dusseault — who previously served as policy adviser to Eric Garcetti during his term as city councilmember and as deputy mayor for housing and homelessness for Mayor James Hahn’s administration —shared her brother John’s struggles with mental illness and homelessness. In the op-ed, titled “Have You Seen My Brother Standing in the Shadows?” Dusseault estimates nearly $1 million has been spent by community and government efforts to help her brother.

“And all of us — taxpayers, my family and John — are getting nothing for that money. The government could have bought him a cute single-family home in Pasadena with a full-time social worker and spent less,” she wrote.

“Last year, we saw a 24% increase in youth experiencing homelessness,” Dusseault told the Journal. “We have to do more to support kids finishing school and achieving educational success by providing more affordable housing options for students and, at a minimum, a roof over their head. We are expanding shelter options for youth and some great universities and community colleges are doing the same to meet this urgent need.”

Another program that aims to help the 15,700 Angelenos who sleep in their vehicles every night is called Safe Parking LA (SPaLA). Founded in 2016, it operates nine lots between 8:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. (Its first “safe parking” lot opened in 2018 in Koreatown). SPaLA also refers participants to health and social services.

In January, UCLA rejected a local neighborhood council proposal to create on-campus parking for homeless students. “We do not think sleeping in cars is safe,” Administrative Vice President Michael Beck said during the council meeting. “It’s not sanitary. It’s something that the University of California, in general, doesn’t support.”

“That is what it means to be a Jew”

“Eliminating homelessness is a Jewish mandate,” JFLA Board President Jordan Lurie said during a February 8 benefit called “Facing Homelessness” at the Luxe Hotel. The event honored Dusseault and philanthropist Bruce Whizin.

“Eliminating homelessness is a Jewish mandate.” — JFLA President Jordan Lurie

“The Talmud notes that the Biblical injunction to provide ‘everything that a needy person requires’ specifically includes housing,” Lurie told the Journal. “The Prophet Isaiah emphasized this point when he instructed: ‘Provide the poor with shelter.’ For all those who are homeless, it is our obligation to provide a home. JFLA takes this directive seriously.”

Across the country, Jewish leaders are issuing a call to action, which, at its core, leaves little room for ambiguity: To live a Jewish life is to dynamically embrace responsibility.

“Judaism is very clear about our communal responsibility to take care of the poor,” said Farkas. “There is a section of Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) that has the Roman General ask Rabbi Akiva, ‘If God loves the poor, why does God not support them?’ Rabbi Akiva said, ‘It is through the poor that we become righteous.’ That is, it is through our agency to take care of the poor that we act godly. At its heart, Judaism is a religion that expresses love through expectation.”

A Roman General asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God loves the poor, why does God not support them?” Rabbi Akiva said, “It is through the poor that we become righteous.”

Because Los Angeles has the third-highest rent burden in the nation (behind Miami and San Diego, according to a 2019 report by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), millions of Angelenos across ethnic, religious, and political divides particularly feel the sting.

“Affordability — especially when it comes to housing — is getting harder and harder to reach in Los Angeles,” District Four Councilmember David Ryu told the Journal. “Students are facing this crisis particularly hard, with the cost of education so high and a bright future feeling so out of reach. One thing that I have learned from the Jewish community as I’ve focused on these issues and served the city the past five years is that when we start from a spirit of service and giving back, we can make real progress.”

Adeena Bleich, Ryu’s deputy chief of staff, is a member of JFLA’s board of directors, who co-chaired the benefit dinner to fight homelessness.

“I remember my mother, z”l, always used to say, ‘We may not have a lot of money, but we have a home. And if for some reason you ever have financial problems, I may not be able to write you a check to pay your rent, but you will always have a home here with your father and me.’ Unfortunately, so many young people don’t have parents who can help them. These students often live in their cars or are couch surfing and putting all of their funds towards school and food,” said Bleich.

In addition to housing, access to food is also critical for college students facing homelessness. Swipe Out Hunger is a local non-profit that distributes meal credits to students facing food insecurity so they may access warm meals in dining halls along with other students. In the past five years, the organization has served close to 2 million meals and sent $20 million to campuses through legislation that supports anti-hunger programs in California.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Swipe Out Hunger has launched several initiatives, including a Student Navigator Network that offers one-on-one online student referral services, and a #fairCARES student advocacy campaign which, according to its website, is aimed at “urging students to ask their institutions to disburse the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner.”

“Someone asked me if I do this work because of my Jewish values,” Swipe Out Hunger’s CEO and co-Founder Rachel Sumekh told the Journal. “It took me a second, but the answer is absolutely ‘yes.’ What’s more Jewish than giving someone a warm meal that’s going to help them focus on school?”

“What’s more Jewish than giving someone a warm meal that’s going to help them focus on school?” —Rachel Sumekh, CEO and Co-Founder of Swipes for Hunger

Farkas ties the Jewish response to homelessness to a sense of community responsibility. “When you are loved, especially by God, that love comes with an expectation to act in a certain way,” he said. “We express our best selves by living up to the highest expectations of what it means to be a human. We take care of each other. We are a voice to the voiceless. We were liberated so that we can become liberators. That is what it means to be a Jew.”

“We were liberated so that we can become liberators. That is what it means to be a Jew.” — Rabbi Noah Farkas, Valley Beth Shalom

The community has met this challenge through leadership and philanthropy. In 2019, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles awarded a Cutting Edge Grant of $300,000 to a program called Jewish Community Safe Lots, which aims to provide homeless populations living in their vehicles with a safe place to park and access to helpful resources. That same year, IKAR, a Los Angeles congregation, became the first Jewish space to participate in the Safe Parking LA program and raised over $10,000 to give parking guests access showers through a monthly membership at a local 24-hour health club.

As part of its 2019 General Community Grants, the Foundation also awarded a record-high $600,000 to three organizations that help provide housing to the homeless. That figure was evenly distributed among three recipients: Brilliant Corners (a motel conversion project), LA Family Housing (shared family interim housing) and The People Concern (scalable permanent supportive housing). In total, the Foundation has donated nearly $1 million in grants to combat homelessness.

“The homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles requires every possible resource devoted to reducing the number of people sleeping without roofs over their heads,” Lori Klein, vice president at the Center for Designed Philanthropy at the Jewish Community Foundation, told the Journal. “This is a pressing social issue that impacts us all. We hope that our action encourages other funders and local leaders to step forward, work together and find comprehensive ways to address this crisis.”

In July 2019, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center announced it would donate $500,000 to JFLA over five years to create the Cedars-Sinai Housing Stability Loan Fund, with the aim to provide those on the brink of homelessness with immediate housing assistance.

The Graduate

Kaitlin is thinking about decorating options for an apartment she hopes to find in Palms — her first choice in a multitude of neighborhood options in the city that now feels accessible to her. She’s excited about buying a new wardrobe for her full-time job at a banking firm. And she’s exploring a once seemingly impossible option to travel somewhere, anywhere.

But these milestones come with a sense of unease, since this is the first time in Kaitlin’s life that she doesn’t feel financially insecure.

“My whole life, I’ve been struggling, and I’ve been so stressed out. And now that those pressures have been taken away, I wonder who I really am, if I’m finally out of survival mode,” she said.

She recently found and reread the letter from her adoptive mother stating she had been disowned. But this time, she knows she can take care of herself, even if she graduated with $30,000 in student loan debt.

“I’ve never been in a place like this in my life — a good place. The pain of that letter truly feels like such a long time ago,” she reflected.

But Kaitlin admits to one, deep yearning: To feel the love of a family. And although she’s grateful to complete college, when I spoke to her last spring, the topic of her graduation ceremony in May brought her to tears.

“Graduation is a sore spot for me,” she said in February, before USC announced a virtual commencement due to COVID-19. “I don’t want to go to graduation if I’m going to be alone. I know I’ll see how much love and praise my friends’ parents will give them at the ceremony, and that’ll be so painful.”

The person whom she would have most loved to have seen most at her graduation? Her birth mother. But Kaitlin’s longing is mired in the tragedy of the unknown and a humanitarian crisis that seems to leave virtually no one immune.

“I wish my mom could come to graduation, but I think she may have passed away,” she said with a gentle sob. “I haven’t heard from her in years, since she became homeless.”

*Names indicated by an asterisk have been changed to protect privacy.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.

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