By Diana Kruzman
When Julie Teitgen’s apartment caught fire two years ago, she had no idea where to go. She was homeless.
At the time, Teitgen, 33, lived with her ex-boyfriend and his mom in a two-bedroom apartment in Westlake. For three weeks after the fire, Teitgen didn’t know where she would sleep each night or when she would be let back into her apartment. She stayed with her ex-boyfriend’s sister but struggled to adapt to the new environment. One night, she slept on a cot in her yard.
And all the while, Teitgen had to continue her role as a student — balancing classes, homework and grades while working on her bachelor’s degree in child development at California State University, Los Angeles.
“Spring quarter was starting, and I had all these books that needed to be read,” Teitgen said. “Our landlord kicked us out, saying he was going to condemn the place, and we didn’t know what to do.”
As a student struggling to find stable housing, Teitgen is not alone. A study released in June found that nearly one in every 10 CSU students is homeless — and that factors from family emergencies to high rent prices to the costs of college are making stable housing difficult to find.
For community college students, the numbers are even higher — a study conducted last year found that nearly one in five students in the Los Angeles Community College District is homeless. And overall homelessness among college-age Angelenos is on the rise. Over the past year, the number of homeless people aged 18-24 grew by 64 percent, according to data from the 2017 Homeless Count.
“Homelessness is broader than what most people think,” said Jed Richardson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the author of the LACCD study. “It can be going from couch to couch or having difficulty paying rent. For a student on the brink, even a broken axle in their car can be a disaster.”
The CSU study found that 46 percent of respondents who identified as homeless were in a situation similar to Teitgen’s — staying “temporarily with friends, relatives or other people,” a process known as “couch surfing.”
That’s why Jennifer Miller, the Dean of Students at CSULA, emphasizes the need for emergency housing to help students who are caught in a difficult situation and find themselves temporarily without a place to live. She says a lack of permanent housing is usually connected to other issues like hunger and emotional distress, which can ultimately lead students to drop out of college if they don’t get support.
“Our students can’t focus if they’re hungry and they’re exhausted,” Miller said. “Our ultimate goal is their success as students.”
But other factors may be more difficult to address. Richardson says that as college becomes more accessible for lower-income students and members of minority groups — as well as necessary to obtain any kind of higher-paying job — students who don’t have support from their families or can’t take out student loans aren’t able to keep up.
“People’s notions of who is going to college are rooted in who went 50 or 60 years ago,” Richardson said. “That’s just not true anymore. We’re getting a different group of people — older students, parents, financially independent students — who have different challenges.”
Rents much higher in LA
Rising rent prices can play a part as well. Rentcafe, a website that tracks renting data across the country, found that a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles costs $2,055 a month on average, compared to $1, 210 nationwide. And costs are even higher in neighborhoods near universities like UCLA and USC, leading some students to seek temporary housing elsewhere.
That’s exactly what the Bruin Shelter — a nonprofit organization that started out as a student organization on the UCLA campus in 2012 — aims to provide. The shelter, which is run out of a church in Santa Monica and could fit up to six students at a time before recent renovations closed it off temporarily, is meant as a short-term solution for students from three Los Angeles-area colleges who don’t have a place to stay.
“Some students who come to us are incoming freshmen without the support of their parents,” said Kenton Sakurai, the co-president of UCLA’s Bruin Shelter. “Some are worried about financial issues or family problems. A lot of it is just unfortunate events or unforeseen circumstances.”
As studies like CSU’s and LACCD’s train the spotlight on students struggling to find secure housing, some steps are being taken to address the issue of student homelessness, as well as related problems like food insecurity. Miller worked to open CSULA’s first food pantry last spring, and says that showers are available on campus for students who otherwise wouldn’t have a place to clean up.
On a legislative level, there’s Measure H — a sales tax increase that passed last November and will direct funds toward addressing homelessness in Los Angeles. In June, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to compile a report on how some of that funding could be used specifically to help homeless students in Los Angeles, with the ultimate goal of helping them stay in school rather than dropping out.
For Teitgen, the services offered at CSULA — from having a food pantry to offering her temporary housing after the fire broke out — are a step in the right direction.
“I’m so proud of my school for advancing,” Teitgen said. “But I know there have to be other students going through this.”