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.
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.
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.”
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.