More than half of Cerritos College’s 22,000 students are either homeless or struggle to pay their rent and other housing utilities.

That fact was the driving reason why the college, located in Norwalk, south of Los Angeles, opened the state’s first housing project for community college students facing housing insecurity. College officials held the grand opening of the housing development on Thursday, June 11.

“The homeless crisis in L.A. is pretty big,” said Jessyca Jimenez, one of five Cerritos students who live in the new housing. There’s a lot of students or even just people who don’t have a home.”

Anthony Miller, a Cerritos student-athlete who also lives in the new housing, said he’d finish playing football games at the college and leave to sleep in a park.

“If I want to do my homework, I’m doing it at the park,” he said. “I have no lights to do my work or anything like that … if I need answers online, I could never do that.”

Miller said the new housing improved his lifestyle and his grades. Although Thursday was the grand-opening celebration for the housing project, some students had already moved in this spring.

“I got a D in calculus while I was homeless,” he said. “And since I’ve had housing, I ended up getting a B this semester, so it just shows there’s a lot that housing can provide for me in this situation.”

The Village at Cerritos College, as it’s called, has seven townhomes, nearly 1,500 square-feet, six of which are three-bedroom and three-bathroom. Four of the townhomes will offer affordable options for 14 students to have their own bedrooms, while up to three students could stay in a room together. In total, the Village can house up to 28 students. There are 12 spaces available now. One room will be left empty if a student needs to be isolated because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Cerritos moved quickly to address this problem for students and purchased the property from a developer in November. Cerritos President Jose Fierro said the total cost to the college was less than $4 million. Only 11 other community colleges in the state provide housing for students, and Cerritos is the first to make it exclusive for students facing homelessness.

Students can qualify for the housing if they can verify they are housing insecure, are between the ages of 18 and 25, maintain a 2.0 GPA and take at least nine course credits a semester. For some students, they can stay for free. Other students may have to pay rent. The affordable rent prices haven’t been finalized, but students would pay no more than $600 a month, and the housing is year-round. Students’ financial aid and income will be considered to determine if they can live completely free.

Cerritos partnered with Jovenes Inc. to manage the housing. Jovenes is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that assists homeless young adults in finding secure housing. The organization will provide a case manager, program assistant and on-site manager to live in the Village and help students. Those students who live for free in the housing will also receive food and household supplies, said Andrea Marchetti, executive director of Jovenes.

“And students can stay for a period of time after graduation,” Marchetti said. “So, the next phase of their life is secure.”

But Fierro said the new housing development is just the beginning of the work Cerritos wants to do for homeless and housing insecure students in its community.

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the California Community Colleges and The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, 65 percent of Cerritos students said they experienced at least one form of basic needs insecurity in the past year, such as hunger or having an unstable place to live. Fifty-five percent said they had difficulty paying rent or a mortgage, and 15 percent of students experienced homelessness in the previous year.

“If we are to continue to challenge our students to excel, transfer, get jobs and become productive members of society, we cannot wait for them to find a solution for these issues,” Fierro said. “We must assist them in finding solutions to meet the basic needs in order to demand the best of them in the classroom.”

Cerritos, through its partnership with Jovenes, and with a $2.1 million grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, also is working to secure housing near the campus for students over the age of 25, or those with children.

“This is exactly what we want to see our colleges do,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 115-community college system. “In this era that we find ourselves in where we’re struggling to make sense of everything that we see going on in front of us, to understand how we make our communities a better place, to lean into the challenges of race and ethnicity of low-income households in communities that are struggling, this project is a clear indicator of what we can do. How we can lean in. How we can be creative and not wait for Sacramento to solve problems, but to act locally.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Ashley A. Smith, EdSource