About 4,000 mini houses were scattered across San Jose State University’s Tower Lawn recently to represent each of the university’s homeless students.
It was a powerful visual created by the university’s Student Homeless Alliance to raise awareness on the plight of student homelessness and about the university’s unfulfilled promises, they said.
It was a last ditch effort to put pressure on SJSU President Mary Papazian to fulfill promises made in a 2020 agreement with SHA before her tenure ends this month.
At a Dec. 2 news conference, the Student Homeless Alliance said while progress has been made, there is still much that has not been done. And with Papazian’s resignation they fear all the progress made will be forgotten when a new president takes her place.
“President Papazian, we’re asking you as you are ending your legacy that you will end it with an impact that you’re proud to say,” SHA member Winnie Liao said. “We are asking you to stand by your words of helping SHA.”
The 2020 agreement outlined a myriad of solutions to the university’s growing homelessness problem — most of which would be handled by a university basic needs program called SJSU Cares.
So far, SHA said the university has fulfilled two of its promises. It created a centralized location for housing support services through SJSU Cares that can be found on the first floor of Clark Hall.
Reaching out for assistance
Since the on-campus office was opened, SJSU Cares dispersed over $27,900 in Student Crisis Support Funds to 24 students to support their basic needs, according to SJSU. Nearly 42 percent of those requests were related to challenges from the pandemic.
SJSU’s annual 2020-2021 report of activities also showed that 579 students reached out for assistance, of which 55.6 percent requested housing assistance.
The university also created a permanent program with the help of SHA that has a dozen emergency beds to provide temporary shelter to a student in need.
But according to SHA, only one bed has been used by one student of the several hundred who have sought help because of some structural barriers in receiving service, which is why the rest of the promises need to be fulfilled, they said.
The university repudiated that claim, saying the university provided 85 nights of shelter, of which 60 days were through on-campus emergency housing between July and September of this year.
“San Jose State and SHA have been working together for several years and will continue to collaborate in the future. We are continually assessing and expanding resources to meet the needs of our students. Our efforts will continue indefinitely.”Robin McElhatton, SJSU spokesperson
Regardless, SHA said there were four more aspects of the 2020 agreement they and other housing advocates believe are essential to getting students the support they desperately need.
The first, and most important, is to remove the policy that asks students to take out the maximum amount allowable in student loans in order to stay in one of those emergency beds on campus or receive other services, SHA president Lana Gomez said.
“A teacher just came up to me and told me her student is experiencing homelessness right now but said he would not get a bed from SJSU Cares or even go down that route because he did try to do that,” Gomez said. “And he was asked to maximize loans, and this in turn puts them in further debt now and down the line.”
The university said it does not have such a policy, but several SHA members begged to differ.
They said the previous policy was that students would have 48 hours to utilize services before they were asked to take out additional loans, but that policy was recently changed to 28 days.
“It’s certainly an improvement,” Gomez said. “But it in ideal world there wouldn’t be such a policy because that only sets students backwards.”
SHA is currently trying to push the university to change it to 40 days.
The other unmet promise is to restructure the advisory board that acts as a conduit between students and the administration. SHA wants students to have more of a voice on the board.
“The whole reason the board was created is because there was a lack of trust between the students and the administration,” SJSU professor and faculty advisor Scott Myers-Lipton said. “So, if students aren’t felt heard there it is not effective.”
SHA also is asking that SJSU Cares update its website to allow more students to seek help and to conduct exit interviews so that they can better understand how to better serve students.
In November, SHA went to the media to raise awareness regarding the unmet promises in an attempt to put pressure on the university.
There, they mentioned that the website asked students right away about their documentation status and whether they have maximized loans — both questions that may deter a student from seeking support.
Gomez said the website was updated since then, but the updates were worse.
“One of the first things you see is a giant picture of staff that works there and then the next thing right below it is their efforts to ask students to raise money on their behalf,” Gomez said. “So, it’s not student centered.”
Many SHA members were especially enraged about the “Share Your Spartan Heart” campaign asking students and faculty to donate because students were already struggling.
However, SJSU spokesperson Robin McElhatton said the campaign was moreso an effort to raise awareness and give those inclined a way to donate to the on-campus food pantry and help students with other resources.
More ways to provide feedback
McElhatton also said SJSU Cares has always conducted exit interviews with students who request support.
“And we have expanded the number of ways students can provide feedback,” McElhatton said, which can be done by filling out an exit survey in person, online, or a face-to-face exit interview with a case manager.
She said in the last month the university removed questions on the website “that some students felt should be asked only in person,” and that an online exit interview was added as well.
In addition, she said the Basic Needs Advisory Committee format was updated to provide more time to engage members.
But SHA members wholeheartedly disagreed and believe nothing fundamentally has changed since their early November news conference.
They are also worried that nothing will change in this last month of the semester.
“I know it’s possible to fulfill these promises,” Gomez said. “However, is it their priority? I don’t know. And, unfortunately, from our experience, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
“San Jose State and SHA have been working together for several years and will continue to collaborate in the future,” she said. “We are continually assessing and expanding resources to meet the needs of our students. Our efforts will continue indefinitely.”