Thousands of Silicon Valley College Students Struggle with Homelessness, Hunger

At eight stories tall, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library is one of the largest joint effort libraries between a city and a university in the United States. Its lower level has a materials archive with more than 500 samples of polymers, ceramics, metals and glass—as well as a graduate lab accessible only by code, where grad students can study in solitude or plot theses. It is 475,000 square feet, houses 1.5 million volumes and has a maximum capacity of 3,500 people.

In my time as a student at San Jose State University, I have leaned heavily upon all of these resources. However, for me, the library was more than a trove of information. Over the course of my first year pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at SJSU, it was sometimes a shelter from the elements.

Last year, I pushed the limits of the library’s extended student hours by spending several Tuesday and Wednesday nights fighting sleep, mounting coursework and hunger. I have napped on nearly every story, bruised my hips sleeping on floors and hidden under desks to avoid detection. Along the way I befriended a handful of kind custodians.

It’s difficult to talk to students facing housing and food insecurity, in part because these terms are hard to define. While I spent some of my year at SJSU in the library overnight, I wouldn’t have considered myself housing insecure. I am one of the fortunate ones.

I have an apartment, a partner and a 12-year-old Yorkie named Rusty. My fiancé and I live in Benicia, where rent is far more affordable and closer to her work. It now takes me about an hour to drive to SJSU. It takes three times that long on public transit. Last year, however, I was living in Davis and commuting on Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line. I often found myself crashing on friends’ sofas. When I couldn’t find a couch to surf, I’d scuttle to a dark, quiet corner of the King Library.

There are few, if any, specific resources for students like me, who commute from hours away in order to save money. Help is available for homeless and hungry students—but many don’t know how to access it, don’t feel they have the time, or like me, feel like there are far more with fewer resources who should receive priority.

According to Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir, co-author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, the more stress a person is under, the less mental bandwidth they have. They call this phenomenon “tunneling—as you devote more and more to dealing with scarcity, you have less and less for other things in your life, some of which are very important for dealing with scarcity.”

Having to commute to school, complete coursework and work on a career—all while constantly wondering where you will sleep and what you will be able to afford to eat—takes its toll. It’s even harder on those without the support network that I have. Still, I tunneled hard toward the end of spring semester, spending long chunks of time staring through my books and papers, unable to summon the focus my studies required.

With more than 4,300 unhoused students, SJSU has the highest rate of homelessness in the CSU system; some rely on the MLK Library for a safe place to sleep. (Photo by Nicholas Chan)

Street Smarts

San Jose’s homeless tally increased from 4,350 in 2017 to 6,172 this year—a 42 percent jump. For Santa Clara County as a whole, it grew by 31 percent, from 7,394 to 9,706.

Those living in this region—among the most expensive places to live in the nation—will not be surprised by these statistics. Anyone who pays attention to their surroundings will see the RVs and vans parked in industrial neighborhoods and lower-income parts of town; entering and exiting the freeway, it’s impossible to miss the tent cities clustered beneath underpasses and tucked behind roadside foliage.

However, while the colloquial expression “starving student” is a familiar one, plenty may be surprised to learn just how many college-going Americans are actually struggling with hunger and homelessness.

A 2018 survey by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab of 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states found that a quarter of college students skipped meals or cut portion sizes because they couldn’t afford enough food. And about 9 percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students reported going homeless within the year prior to the survey.

With a growing number of students having to choose between eating and learning, colleges throughout the nation have been opening food pantries and resource centers. But SJSU, which claims the highest population of homelessness in the 23-campus California State University system with 4,300 unhoused students, has been repeatedly criticized for not doing enough to help.

Silicon Valley's poorest pupils sleep in cars, crash on couches and steal winks in the library. (Photo by Nicholas Chan)

Gimme Shelter

In addition to the 30 hours per week he spends serving burgers and fries animal-style, Alejandro Mayorga is a San Jose State sociology major with an emphasis in community change. He transferred from a community college in Inglewood and hopes to graduate in the spring. Last year was his first as a member of the Student Homeless Alliance (SHA), an organization that seeks to call attention to the plight of unhoused students and campaigns for meaningful action. The coalition has made headlines in recent months by camping outside on college campuses and calling on school administrators to do more to address the plight of students who can’t make ends meet.

The SHA has three main demands of SJSU. They are calling for a minimum of 10 parking spots in the Seventh Street Parking Garage for safe sleeping—an increase from the originally promised five to seven spots that the SJSU administration agreed to last July but has yet to enact; a minimum of 12 beds where homeless students may stay up to 60 days (an expansion from the two beds for two weeks that is now offered); and $2,500 emergency grants for students to remain in housing if they cannot afford rent.

These demands were enumerated in a Change.org petition created seven months ago and signed by more than 1,200 people. The impetus for the petition was the 2018 CSU Chancellor’s Office Study of Student Basic Needs, which reported that 13.2 percent of students had experienced homelessness in 2017.

One of the petition’s supporters, Tracey McTague, commented, “As a West Valley College community member and one who has had a homeless experience in college, I fully support SJSU students and the Homeless Student Alliance. With Google moving in next door, what benefit will our community students see, except ever higher rents and increasing expenses? How will the local community compete with Big Private University for good local jobs? This must be addressed in San Jose now, not after Google moves in.”

This year, SHA members have connected with homeless advocates such as Jen Loving at the nonprofit Destination: Home and Pastor Scott Wagers from Community Homeless Alliance Ministry (CHAM). They’ve also been to homeless encampments and provided water and other services to those in need.

Recent SJSU graduate Mayra Bernabe, who served as president of SHA for the past academic year, got involved with the organization through a social action class, where she learned about homeless and hungry students.

Part of SHA’s campaign last year involved setting up booths that offered hot cocoa, granola bars and mini donuts to students. Bernabe worked these events and talked firsthand with students experiencing food and housing insecurity, asking them what they thought about SHA’s demands. Through these conversations she met many students who had faced housing insecurity or homelessness in a previous semester.

“That was was really eye-opening for us,” Bernabe says.

Going into this new school year, Elsa Salgado, a 23-year-old SJSU sociology major from San Mateo, has assumed the role Bernabe held with SHA up through this summer. “I knew once I transferred to SJSU, I had to get involved,” says Salgado, who learned about the plight of homeless students through one of her classes. “I had not been aware that the issue of student homelessness had existed, and I was shocked to hear how often students undergo housing insecurity and homelessness.”

One of the hardest parts of trying to find solutions for unhoused students is that most don’t talk about their experience with homelessness until it’s over. It’s hard to blame them—while the SHA petition received over a thousand signatures, a petition on the same site opposing a proposed homeless shelter in San Jose received more than 3,800 signatures. A commenter on this petition wrote: “Crime, criminals, drug use, needles belong nowhere near an elementary school and where a park is. Put this in an industrial area on Berryessa Road.”

With angry residents at San Jose council meetings, dead air from SJSU administration and a city “Homeless Concerns Hotline”—largely used to report encampments to authorities—it often feels like the loudest voices are those showing contempt for people without stable housing. In order to face the combative public, SHA members have done extensive research inside and outside of class.

They also met with SJSU President Mary Papazian and Vice President of Student Affairs Patrick Day last spring, and before the start of the current semester. In that meeting Papazian and Day pledged to provide a centralized location for SJSU Cares, a resource hub for students dealing with hunger and homelessness.

“After our meeting with President Papazian and VP Day, our demands were not met,” Salgado lamented. “However, we did get a promise from the administration in which they established a commitment to housing all students. While they did not specify any type of plan in how that objective would look like, they encouraged SHA to send our students facing housing insecurity to SJSU Cares.”

Though disappointed that SJSU Cares staff simply referred students to outside organizations, Salgado says she’s heartened that the administration put the resource center in a centralized location—Clark Hall—for the fall semester. “This is something we are highly looking forward to,” she says.

Prior to the social action class that inspired her to lead SHA, Bernabe had taken a course on poverty, wealth and privilege with the same professor, Dr. Scott Myers-Lipton of the sociology department. As did her SHA successor, Salgado.

Dr. Myers-Lipton, the faculty advisor to SHA, says he supports the organization’s three demands “The students are asking that the student housing in the new Alquist building be at least 20 percent below market rate (affordable for students).” He also supports the students' desire “for a plan from the administration to ‘house every Spartan,’ which President Papazian and AVP Day committed to in our meeting.”

Mayorga is hopeful for resources, though he won’t be holding his breath. “I think we are heading in the right direction, but we are just moving extremely slowly—at least at the rate of the problem, the way it’s going down,” he says. “We want to bring in resources.”

Mayorga’s hopes for positive change are not limited to the homeless alliance. “I’ve always wanted to be an educator,” he says. “Coming from Inglewood, we lacked a lot of funding. The dropout rate was pretty high and I was always aware that the school lacked something.” Mayorga hopes to find a way to make systemic changes “for the betterment of the community.”

When he came to SJSU and found out there was actually a concentration in community change, he figured it was perfect. “I want to teach history,” he says. “I thought it was the perfect fit because I get to teach and at the same time learn how the system works and see if I can get involved in activist work.”

He wasn’t expecting SHA to become a campaign. “I thought it was a group of students that got together and volunteered to help out the homeless community, so this was really new to me.” While Mayorga is an undergraduate, he also has to make work a priority. “Although I do school, I do work 30 hours at In-N-Out, so, you know, I work in fast food—I don’t get the opportunity in my job to do what I’m doing here.”

When thinking about solutions, Mayorga has been looking to the examples of other universities: “We met folks from UCLA, you know, the students who created the Bruins shelter. I really loved their idea.”

Should President Papazian and the SJSU administration need examples of workable solutions, they could start with Papazian’s own three-time alma mater, UCLA, where the student-run Bruin Shelter allows homeless students between the ages of 18-24 to stay. As of March, they are at capacity and it is unclear when there will be vacancies again.

Additionally, Mayorga is in favor of middle-ground solutions that make financial burdens lighter on individuals: “I’ve started hearing a lot more about co-ops through the UC system. My brother actually lives in a co-op. It’s affordable, it’s below market value, it’s for long-term students. So that provides food, amenities, people, the students themselves take it upon themselves to clean, cook, they do the yard work. I think it’s a good idea, especially in terms of providing housing.”

SHA has staged numerous demonstrations to pressure SJSU to provide more resources for homeless, hungry students. (Photo courtesy of Elsa Salgado, via Student Homeless Alliance)

On Demand

As a student who has personally experienced housing and hunger insecurity, I fully support SHA’s demands. If they are ever met, I might spend a night or two in one of those parking spots or dorm beds to avoid the long ride back to Benicia. I don’t need a room. But I know there are those who do—and even more who simply need a safe and comfortable place to rest. A university kitchen that allows students to make their own meals also seems like an easy remedy to a serious problem.

The Bruin Shelter itself took inspiration from the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. It’s true that these schools are known to have generous donors and deep pockets. Silicon Valley is one of the wealthiest metropolitan regions in the world, and we have a population that knows how to leverage technology to solve seemingly intractable problems. If they can make it work in Los Angeles and Cambridge, why not here?

Perhaps the best summation of this problem comes from the King Library’s namesake. In what would become the foundation of his Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King called upon his country to bring an end to poverty:

“I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights. …[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement. …That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution … In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”

It has been more than 50 years since Dr. King called on people to raise these questions, and action is long overdue. It’s time for us to decide once and for all that a good night’s rest is a human right, not a privilege.

23 Comments

  1. Believe it or not.

    There is over 10,000 acres of vacant land 29 minutes from SJSU near a major road. The county refuses to have it used for housing.

    Time for people to ask why?

    10,000 acres housing for 20 000 people

  2. The state of California really needs to check into this problem particular in Santa Clara County and Bay Area. More and more international students come to this area mostly from India. A last census just released last week showed that from 2013 to the present significant Asian immigrants moved to the the area and an even more significant number of locals moved out of the area due to high rent and cost of livings. High tech companies are the primary factor for this increase of rent and cost of living. Locals including students have to work much harder for less. There is significant literature in the field of psychology that shows that if people have to be worried about basis needs, there is less potential for higher functioning tasks. The “international talent” students typically are sponsored by relatives and companies that are already securing their basis needs. Working for Google secures free meals including on the days you do not work and it is the same for other tech companies that even include free Landry service. Mean while, local disadvantaged students have to struggle daily about studying or working few more hours each day. More study time increases academic success and more working time more food to eat and a place to sleep. Under these conditions local students have no chance competing for the tops jobs awaiting the international ‘talented’ students after graduation. It has been a long term pattern. As usual, our system follow a reactive approach. They have just recently engaged in talking and writing about. This is nothing against the Asian international students. There are taking advantage of what has been created for them. It is about the local systems that make the life of the locals more challenging while facilitating the success if foreigners. This is clearly a discrepancy of equal access to education and so social economic success. Local families cannot engage in saving for their children higher education while they constantly have to worried about making end means and paying their high rents. Families in the Bay Area are also facing hunger, homelessness, and displacement.

    • > It is about the local systems that make the life of the locals more challenging while facilitating the success if foreigners. This is clearly a discrepancy of equal access to education and so social economic success.

      You are wallowing in the intractable tarpit of do-gooder wishful thinking.

      You are confusing “fairness” with “equality”.

      Local students should have a “fair” opportunity for access to education consistent with their needs and abilities.

      NO student should expect that anyone should provide him or her with automatic access to the most desirable or “top” opportunities. Very few people can do differential equations in their heads, and if an opportunity requires such an ability, giving everyone an “equal” shot at this opportunity is stupid and a waste of time.

      The obvious answer — obvious to progressives, anyway — is to provide government paid “differential equations” accommodations to the mathematically inept. Like, maybe, outlawing the use of differential equations.

      • The obvious answer is fixing the housing crisis. Those wishing to rent a room now have to pay 700-1000 average a month. That is obviously a rent not in every regular student affordable budget. That is for those fortunate to find a room to rent. Not only local families are competing for housing; students are struggling to find housing too. Meanwhile Google wants to create its google land of affluent employees while pushing low income and middle class people out. I do not have to discuss this anymore. The “experts” are now paying attention to this pattern of local families being pushed out and more Asian immigrants moving to the Bay Area. The article was all over the news last week. No one is asking to give students free stuff. I want my tax dollars to be used to improve the quality of life for those in my community not to be spent to allow tax breaks for google and making the path of affluent students from other states and countries easier.

        • Why Felix your sounding Zena-phobic, and you beginning to understand the principles of supply and demand. There might be a free-market capitalist hiding in you closet dyeing poke a chad out for Trump after all.

  3. My first suggestion find a cheaper place to go to school. This is one of the most expensive places in the US. Try Bakersfield or Redding.

    Second join the military’s if you are worthy you can get a useful education on the cheap. I recommend the Air Force as they have semi private rooms and food is free. If your really good the academies will provide you a top quality education and a government job for life. Come to think of it any branch will feed and house you.

    You will like the military as it is modeled after the socialist system, Each according to his ability each according to his needs and it is payed for by the wealthy, Redistribution of the wealth, You will be payed the same as everyone else no need to feel bad about making to much in the military and you will be working for the biggest government. That’s security my boy!

    Good Luck CJ

    • > You will like the military as it is modeled after the socialist system,

      The truth that shouldn’t be spoken.

      It might get Berniecrats thinking that they should join up and hope for a war or two just to keep employment up.

      • Shhhhh, its well kept secret. Most of these snow flakes can’t pass the intelligence or a fitness test.

        Back during the draft if you couldn’t get into collage, you got drafted. Now if you can’t get into the military you go to collage and sleep on the library floor and eat dust bunnies’. Times sure have changed

  4. > Thousands of Silicon Valley College Students Struggle with Homelessness, Hunger

    Two segments of the economy where costs have increased far faster than inflation:

    1. health care
    2. higher education

    The higher education cartel has taken advantage of cheap, subsidized, forgivable, government guaranteed student loans by jacking up college tuition and fees. UP! UP! UP!

    And to make matters worse, the quality of education has diminished so that students need more classes, more prerequisites, more certificates, more credentials, more degrees to be employable.

    The fastest way to deliver relief to “Silicon Valley College Students” struggling with homelessness and hunger, is to CUT COLLEGE TUITION AND FEES and cut fat cat faculty fees and emoluments. Fake injun Professor Elizabeth Warren got $429,981 from Harvard in 2011-2012 for the job of “faculty”. Warren’s hubby, Professor Bruce Mann, knocks down another quarter of a million dollars from Harvard.

    Cut tuition and fees at “elite” universities IMMEDIATELY. Fat cat professors can easily absorb the pay cuts, and the overall reduction in costs for higher education will “trickle down” to the local colleges and universities relied on by the white working class and the black and brown members of the “new white working class” looking for some white privilege.

    And, after cutting tuition, THEN yank the accreditation of some of the most pompous and insane colleges and universities to send them a message to get back to REAL education and STOP gouging students for useless, worthless politically correct indoctrination.

    • Cut all faculty members who do not actually teach at least 30 hours per week. Not with TA’s, either. Universities are drowning because too many tenured professors while the days away allegedly researching. They provide nothing to the general student body.Let them scrounge up their own grants .

    • Felix .
      No the military is a second option. Move to a cheaper location for an education, like Mumbai. They will be taught in English how get an engineering degree in something useful, that they will get paid a living wage in Silicon Valley, just like the guy that bought our old house. Happy us living in less expensive area we can afford.

  5. Students today have it too easy.
    I had to walk ten (10) miles through snow and ice to get to school. I only got to eat stinging nettle soup. I slice of bread was a luxury.
    Quit your belly-aching!
    Move to a state where you can afford to live and eat…or suffer…No-one is going to care if you live or dry-up and blow-away!
    David S. Wall

    • David do not compare your stone times with today’s. My parents had a harder time than me and so on. Pure stupidity coming out of your mouth!

    • > I had to walk ten (10) miles through snow and ice to get to school. I only got to eat stinging nettle soup. I slice of bread was a luxury.

      I had to walk sixteen kilometers through snow on top of frozen tundra to get to school. We didn’t have miles in my day. Only rich people had miles. We had to use kilometers. And my stepmother only fed me soup made from the skin of stinging nettles. The rich people got to eat the fleshy part. And we only got to sniff the bread pans where the rich people made their bread.

      You didn’t have it so bad.

      • I’m sorry MR Bubble,
        My grandmother used to boil piece skin from woolly mammoths after the saber tooth cats finished licking the flash off the bones. My father had that 16 click walk up hill to school carrying a twelve pound musket and a tomahawk just in case he was attacked by a short face bear or an 800 pound sasquatch.

  6. In other words, #homelessness is no longer a symbol of decline.. This article sadly sums up college students “homelessness problems” at San Jose State and other colleges and universities throughout the United States.

  7. > Thousands of Silicon Valley College Students Struggle with Homelessness, Hunger

    If I were king, I would give free homes, free food, and free college education to all Silicon Valley College Students.

    Problem solved.

    Vote for me.

    • > I would love to vote for you Mr. Bubble. I’d have to come back as an illegal or vote absentee.

      We’ll make it happen.

      My homeless colleagues will be fishing unvoted ballot packages out of the dumpsters for twenty five cents each.

      Mr. Google will be helpful in supplying images of voter signatures to copy onto the mail-in envelopes.

      Don’t tell the authorities.

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