SJSU students look to Sacramento to help low-income students
San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra and Senator Jim Beall announced a slew of measures to help homeless students at SJSU, including transferring a state building to the university for housing. Photo courtesy of Lam Nguyen.

With San Jose State having one of the largest homeless student populations in California, a group of students hope to address the problem by pushing for a bill that's stalled in the state capitol.

The Student Homeless Alliance (SHA) is backing Assembly Bill 1314, which would expand Cal Grant student aid to cover more college expenses. Authored by Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Riverside Democrat, the bill passed the Assembly in May but has been stuck in the Senate since June.

Now, the student activists, coming off their success with SJSU administrators granting their demands to help homeless students, hope to move things along in Sacramento.

“More money would be coming from the state and hopefully students won’t be coming into the spot of crisis,” SHA president Diana Rendler, a junior, said.

More than 50,000 students in the California State University system — about 11% — have experienced homelessness, according to a 2018 study. But SJSU had one of the highest rates of homeless students in the system — 13.2%, or about 4,000 students. The CSU study found black students and first-generation students experienced the highest levels of food insecurity and homelessness.

Last fall, SHA fought to address the university's homeless crisis, culminating in administrators announcing a plan that includes $3 million in grants and centralizing the university’s resource center, SJSU Cares, to better serve students.

Now, with a stalled AB 1314 that could further expand aid, SHA has turned their sights to Sacramento.

“The students are setting a good example for the country at a time when our democracy is kind of jammed,” said Scott Myers-Lipton, SHA’s faculty advisor and a professor of sociology at San Jose State.

Myers-Lipton said he's increasingly hearing from students that they're sleeping in the library or in a car, which led to the creation of SHA. “The crisis had engulfed them,” Myers-Lipton said.

Not enough aid

In California, students receive federal aid through Pell Grants to cover tuition, books, transportation and living expenses, capped at nearly $6,100. They can also receive Cal Grants, administered by the California Student Aid Commission, to nearly 470,000 students to cover tuition and school fees. Many students also receive scholarships or take out loans to pay for school.

But even with Cal Grant aid, scholarships, a grant for foster youth and part-time jobs, former sociology student Saline Chandler couldn’t afford a place to live. So she slept in her car or the Bill Wilson Center, and used the university gym to shower. Because it took her longer to complete school, she lost financial aid.

While Chandler praised the university's recent reforms, she said officials need to look at larger issues that cause students to be homeless, including racism and classicism.

“We’re not asking for resources with a handout,” Chandler said. “But what San Jose State needs to realize is that structural change needs to take place, what can systematically or structurally be done to address the issue, not just put a band-aid on it.”

Helping low-income students

According to a bill analysis from the Assembly Higher Education Committee staff of AB 1314, all three state public higher education systems — the CSU, California Community Colleges and University of California — report slower time-to-degree and lower graduation rates for low-income students. Low-income students also borrow more, with nearly 80% of indebted CSU graduates coming from households with family incomes below $54,000.

AB 1314 would streamline state funding for lower-income students and remove barriers such as age, grades and certain forms of residency for aid that can go toward non-tuition costs — including housing, food and transportation. It also expands Cal Grant to cover summer school costs.

“The Cal Grant system has too many barriers to access and is not meeting the needs of our students,” Medina said in a statement. “At a time when California's prosperity is the envy of the world, we must ensure that higher education — the engine that drives our economy — is accessible to all students. AB 1314 will make our financial aid system more equitable and ensure that California makes a strong investment in its future.”

The bill has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate. Medina said he's convened a working group to discuss technicalities of Cal Grant reform, and will use those recommendations to make amendments this spring.

AB 1314 has support from the state Department of Education and Student Aid Commission, while the the Cal State Student Association, representing CSU students, supports the bill if it’s amended with more details. There has been no formal opposition to the bill yet.

SHA also met with local lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Beall, who said he'll support AB 1314. “It is imperative that we continue to push the state to remove the barriers obstructing our student's access to the Cal Grant,” Beall said in a statement. “With the rising cost of education and housing, a redesign is overdue for all of our student programs.”

Photo courtesy of SJSU's Student Homeless Alliance.

Rendler said SHA is also partnering with campus administration on a pilot program to provide 12 emergency beds for displaced students. The group will also host its 14th annual “Poverty Under the Stars” on Feb. 20 to raise awareness about homelessness while centering AB 1314 as an issue this year.

Ashley Crosdale, a junior who leads SHA's outreach, said she nearly became homeless as a community college student when she didn't have Cal Grant assistance and had trouble transferring to SJSU because she couldn't pay for housing and food. She now has a Cal Grant and is working with other CSU campuses to raise awareness about AB 1314.

“It just shows that you can use your voice, your lived experience and your empathy to understand that change can happen when you do really ask for it and you demand it,” Crosdale said.

Contact Eduardo Cuevas at [email protected] or follow @eduardomcuevas on Twitter.

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