Opinion: Laws Addressing College Student Homelessness Must Be Carefully Crafted

homeless students

Homelessness among college students appears to only be getting worse. A survey released last week found that more than half of U.S. college and university students are having trouble finding a place to live.

The #RealCollege survey queried 86,000 students at 123 colleges and universities in 24 states and found that 56% experienced housing insecurity, with 30% struggling with rent increases and 3% being summoned to housing court due to lack of payment. Nineteen percent said they were forced to default, and 4% have moved three or more times to find affordable housing. Seventeen percent reported being homeless in the past year. The homeless issue is particularly pronounced at community colleges.

That’s why some states have started looking into ways they can help homeless students with housing.

In February, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a $120,000 program that allows homeless college students to stay year-long at state universities in Bridgewater, Framingham, Worcester and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell if they are under the age of 25, full-time students and have good grades.

And it’s not just colleges that are trying to address homelessness. In April 2018, a West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs office partnered with a non-profit organization to provide parking stalls to homeless veterans living in their cars.

Now the California legislature is considering Assembly Bill 302, which would require community colleges with parking facilities to allow overnight parking for homeless students.

While I applaud the intent of this bill, when I attended the California College and University Police Chiefs Association (CCUPA) Spring Conference last month, the attendees brought up many issues that would come up if this bill became law. Some of those issues include:

  • The need for additional security/police officers to patrol the parking lots.
  • The need to provide restroom facilities, as well as custodians and supplies to keep the restrooms functioning properly.
  • How to vet homeless individuals allowed to spend the night in the parking lots. Will students with children be allowed?
  • The additional infrastructure needed to keep students and the campus safe and secure, such as more lighting, access control and gates. Will the rest of the campus be closed during the overnight hours? If so, how will access be managed?
  • What, if any, alternative facilities should be provided when there is inclement weather, such as extreme summer heat at desert locations, or extreme cold during the winter?
  • What is the college’s responsibility/liability exposure if a student staying in the parking lot gets sick or injured?
  • What types of emergency plans and procedures should be developed so that parking lot residents can be safely evacuated or sheltered during a crisis?
  • Who is going to pay for all of this?

These are just some of the issues that need to be addressed. Although most campus security/public safety administrators have genuine compassion for students experiencing homelessness, they also know that if AB 302 (or other laws like it in other states) passes, it needs to be the right law with adequate resources provided for the campuses that will be impacted.

I applaud all of the states that are trying to address homelessness in their states, but the laws they pass must be written carefully. Let’s hope the California Legislature gets AB 302 right.

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