Long Beach City College offers students safety while sleeping in their cars

November 18, 2021

Long Beach Community College District is being sued by part-time faculty.

Every night, some college students attending Long Beach City College drive their vehicles into the on-campus parking ramp where they will spend the night.

Once they find their assigned parking spot, they check in with the private security guard hired by the college before settling in for the night.

They park their vehicles along a designated row that has easy access to showers and restrooms in a building steps away with locker rooms. There is one parking space between the cars to allow for privacy and a Covid-safe distance. They must schedule their morning shower with the guard because only one student at a time may enter the locker rooms where the showers are located to maintain distancing guidelines. They live in their vehicles, so just parking there also gives them access to Wi-Fi, electrical outlets and, most of all, a safe place to sleep.

The students are participants in the community college’s safe overnight parking program, a pilot program funded by the school to support students who are living in their vehicles while attending college. The program might be the first of its kind in California to launch at a public college, officials said.

The project is seen as a temporary solution for Long Beach’s student housing crunch, a crisis impacting all three levels of the state’s public college system. To help trigger more affordable student housing, the state Legislature included $500 million in the 2021-22 budget.

The program has approved two students, with seven applicants on the roster and space for up to 15 students.

The students can count on a reserved parking spot on the college’s Pacific Coast campus within a parking structure that shuts down to all other students by 10 p.m. That’s when only those approved for the program can enter. Their deadline to check in with the assigned security guard is 11 p.m. although they are free to come and go as needed throughout the night. The security ends at 7 a.m. but students can continue parking in the same spot, so they can attend classes.

As the pilot continues, Long Beach has submitted applications for $75 million to $90 million to build affordable student housing at its campuses on East Carson Street and five miles away on East Pacific Coast Highway.

“First, we have to secure the funds, and then we have to go through the whole design-build stage,” said Michael Muñoz, the college’s interim superintendent-president. “So that’s still a few years off… We were thinking: What can we do now? Not three or four years from now. What needs to be done now to support housing-insecure students?”

Photo: Long Beach City College

Michael Muñoz, the college’s interim superintendent president, helped oversee the development of the pilot program.

While overnight parking for students is not an option for every campus in the state, it has the potential to temporarily alleviate stress for students. It especially helps students who are living in their vehicles on residential streets where they may incur pushback from residents.

The conversation leading to the pilot’s launch began in 2019, when a state bill that would have required community colleges to offer overnight parking spaces for homeless students was introduced.

The bill was pulled from consideration a few months later, but Long Beach City College continued exploring whether they could independently create such a program.

“We don’t look at this as a long-term solution,” said Muñoz, who helped develop the pilot. “This is really a transitional solution. And so we kind of case-manage these students in as quickly as possible and transition them to more stable forms of housing.”

The West Valley-Mission Community College District in San Jose also has an on-campus parking program in partnership with a local religious organization but there are key differences. Both students and community members can park overnight on campus for up to 30 days. The partnership with the Saratoga Ministerial Association has been in place for three years and also provides temporary housing at local houses of worship during the rest of the year plus a weekly meal on Fridays.

Other campuses, like Palomar College in San Diego and Santa Monica College in Los Angeles, considered rolling out an overnight parking program for students but did not approve it.

Supporters of the state bill in 2019 said it was a necessary move to provide homeless students with a form of stability while attending classes, while opponents stated it was insufficient in moving students toward long-term housing. They also cited security concerns of disclosing where students were sleeping overnight.

The program at Long Beach City College took that concern into consideration and contracted with a security firm called Absolute International Security until June 30 to help secure the parking lot between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. every day. The pilot’s budget is $200,000, which includes the cost of the security contract.

Toward the end of the security contract, Muñoz’s team will be analyzing data collected through the course of the pilot to determine if the program should continue — data such as how many students they are able to help, at what capacity, how quickly they can move the students into transitional and stable housing, and if any unanticipated issues arise.

“My hope is that the data would support the continuation of this program,” said Muñoz, who would like to expand the program from the current parking structure to the college’s other campus less than 5 miles away.

The college is taking a “case management approach” with the pilot, ensuring that each student is connected to the other services they may need to succeed in the classroom. That could include free food from the campus food pantry and help applying for CalFresh, the state’s food benefits program; access to mental health resources, free bus passes and technology support.

Patricia Lopez and her daughter lived in their vehicle temporarily during Lopez’s first year at Long Beach City College. The 34-year-old Compton native left an abusive home and knew of shelters in her area, but she said she was too embarrassed to ask for help at the time.

So, she decided to park her car down the street from a friend’s house in Compton overnight to sleep. Eventually, she and her daughter moved into her friend’s RV.

“It was pretty embarrassing, and I really had low self-esteem because of that,” said Lopez, who is in her second and final year at Long Beach City College, where she is studying drug and alcohol counseling.

Though their living space was larger in the RV, they still did not have access to running water or electricity and found themselves going to supermarkets or asking friends for access to their bathrooms for hygiene.

Patricia Lopez and her daughter, who is 12, lived in their vehicle during Lopez’s first year at Long Beach City College.

Lopez hit her breaking point once her daughter, who is 12, pushed her to seek help.

“My daughter came up to me and said ‘Mommy, I don’t like this. I want to help,’” she said. “That gave me motivation to actually reach out and actually ask because I was really embarrassed and ashamed to say, ‘Hey, I haven’t showered in three days.’ I realized that I just needed to let go of my pride and let go of the embarrassment and reach out for help.”

She opened up about her living situation to a professor she trusted who suggested applying to the college’s Basic Needs program.

With support from the college and a nonprofit organization called Jovenes that they connected her to, Lopez and her daughter now live in an apartment.

One of Lopez’s biggest worries before moving into an apartment was her daughter’s safety. Having something like the safe overnight parking program when she was living in her car would have alleviated some of that stress, she said.

“It was nerve-wracking having my daughter sleeping in the back seat and wondering in the middle of the night like, ‘I hope nothing bad happens,’” said Lopez, who currently works as a behavioral technician in a 30-day detox residential facility. “With this parking structure, nobody’s going to have to worry about that.”

Lopez’s advice to fellow Long Beach City College students who may be experiencing housing and food insecurity is to pursue help through college-sponsored efforts like the basic needs program.

“They’re here to help you with anything that you need, even with clothes,” Lopez said. “You’re not alone. They’re there to help.”

Bella Arnold is a senior at California State University, Long Beach. She is an intern with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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