LONG BEACH, Calif. — Nontraditional students are becoming the norm when it comes to students on campus: returning adults, veterans, parents and students without a high school diploma. Many are working full-time jobs, and some struggle to find a safe place to sleep every night.
"I felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed because I was trying to go to McDonald's. I was going to Walmart, trying to sit in the parking lot and do my homework," said Patricia Lopez, a student at Long Beach City College (LBCC).
Students like Lopez are stuck in an endless cycle outside the classroom, trying to secure meals, a shower, and peace of mind. When trying to meet the most basic needs, education often takes a back seat.
"Trying to find a safe space to park, making sure your stuff is secure, always stressing about who's out there, who's going to come try and steal my car, even," said Lopez. "I was out on the streets, barely getting by with gas."
A college student and mother, she's among the nearly 4 million undergraduates who are raising children. While this month marks eight years of sobriety for Lopez, she's been in and out of homelessness after leaving an abusive home.
"It's been an existing problem that's been exacerbated by the pandemic," said Uduak-Joe Ntuk, president of the Long Beach Community College Board of Trustees. "And we were looking for, what can we do now to help provide services for students?"
A 2016 survey identified 6 to 10 percent of the LBCC student body was homeless at any time during the academic year, which Ntuk says could be up to 2,500 students.
In a nationwide study last year, 48 percent of college students reported housing insecurity in the previous year.
"We have students right now that need help today. And that's our goal, to help our current students succeed. And we can't wait five more years," said Ntuk.
The campus launched a pilot Safe Parking Program for students to sleep in their vehicles overnight in a secure campus location. School officials say it's the first of its kind in the region at a community college.
All currently enrolled students who are experiencing homelessness are eligible to stay in the secured parking structure, seven nights a week, between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. They have access to free Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, restrooms and showers.
"The students who come into our safe parking pilot program, this is an opportunity for us to do interventions with them and provide assessment and wrap-around services," said Ntuk. "Is there somewhere else we can help move them that's more permanent supportive housing or temporary housing?"
He says this is a temporary solution as the school works to build student housing.
"Being able to have a shower, being able to have the restroom available to you, being able to have security, it gives the students peace of mind," said Lopez.
While the pilot program doesn't allow students to have children sleeping in their vehicles with them, the college helped Lopez and her daughter secure an apartment. They've also provided hot meals and groceries through the school's basic needs program, equipping Lopez with the tools to finish what she started.
"I haven't gotten my grades yet for this semester, but last semester I was all As. I have a 3.6 GPA right now, I'm in an honors society," said Lopez.
She'll graduate in June with an Associate's Degree in drug and alcohol counseling and plans on continuing her education at Cal State Long Beach.
"It felt, it felt so good," said Lopez. "Because I was getting help with building my foundation."