After Steven Brown was released from prison following a wrongful conviction, he was left with nothing. At the age of 44, Brown decided to go back to school. Though he was living under a bridge in Santa Cruz with few possessions, he enrolled at Cabrillo College, a nearby community college.
“I was so angry at everybody,” he recalled. “I knew if I didn’t do something positive with it, it was going to get in the way for the rest of my life.”
After graduating with his associate arts degree, Brown wanted to continue his education. He enrolled at UC Berkeley in summer 2016 to major in legal studies. But Brown was still homeless. He would often sleep in the bushes on campus or in Moffitt Library, where other homeless students laid out sleeping bags, he said.
Eventually, Brown reached out to Safe Time, an organization that matches volunteer hosts with individuals or families experiencing a housing crisis. Through this group, Brown met Christi Carpenter, a middle school English teacher living in San Jose. She and her husband took Brown in for a few weeks while Brown worked to improve his grades after having been homeless for a while.
After this experience, Carpenter decided to start her own organization, Homeless to Homecoming. It’s similar to Safe Time but with a focus specifically on college students.
“As teachers, we’re promoting college as a solution to poverty, but college has gotten extremely expensive,” she said.
The new nonprofit asks both host and student to fill out an application, which includes references for the host to check along with details about their preferences and current housing situations. Carpenter then personally goes through each application to match the two parties. Once matched, the host and student will meet at a neutral location. If that meeting is successful, they will then make a plan for the student to move in.
Right now, there are no financial incentives for the hosts to take on a student. But since Carpenter was recently awarded a fellowship by 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit that funds innovation in education, she said she may start using the money to help hosts cover the costs of rising utilities. “People who have a spare bedroom might also be struggling financially,” she said.
Carpenter said that hosting Brown was a humbling experience for her. It also made her realize how much housing could change someone’s situation, especially for college students.
Though Brown may be considered a nontraditional student, his story is not uncommon. According to a 2017 survey by the Basic Needs Committee at UC Berkeley, 10 percent of undergraduates reported having experienced homelessness or housing insecurity during their time the university. The percent was double that for postdoctoral students.
At Cal, another new resource for students facing a housing crisis is the Homeless Student Union, HSU. Started last fall, the HSU works not only as a point of reference and aid for homeless students, but also looks to provide temporary housing for those students through alumni or other members of the Berkeley community.
Connor Hughes joined the HSU last year, and now works as the chair of the Housing Security Oversight Committee. The committee is spearheading a scholarship fund for students who need financial aid to pay for housing deposits. “A lot of students work and can afford rent, but it’s harder for them to afford that initial housing deposit and fees that are so high in the Bay Area,” Hughes explained.
He said the scholarship fund is on track to launch by the beginning of April so they can reach the students who are just beginning to find housing before the summer starts.
Carpenter’s organization has only been around since January. She’s been doing outreach and collaborating with colleges around the East Bay to promote Homeless to Homecoming. Her main focus right now is reaching out to community colleges in the area, which she says have a higher number of nontraditional students who are often more vulnerable to housing insecurity.
She’s hopeful about the future of the organization, though she realizes it’s not a quick fix.
“Everyone is a full person, with a bundle of attributes, experiences, and needs—not just a body that needs a roof and a bed,” she said. “This makes solutions more complex, but also more satisfying to be involved.”
This story appeared in the April edition of our sister publication, The Monthly.