Student film raises awareness, proposes solutions to student homelessness

“It’s a difficult process. My GPA has definitely dropped this semester. And I wonder what would happen if I didn’t have some of these financial problems.” So reflected Leo, a junior at UC Berkeley, on keeping up with his course work when he often doesn’t know where he’ll be sleeping at night. Leo, who has experienced periodic homelessness, explained, “I’ve had varying problems from not knowing where I would sleep at all to being overwhelmed with how long the commute was.”

Leo and transfer student Tavi (last names withheld) are featured in a documentary, Invisible Students: Homeless at UC Berkeley, about UC Berkeley students who are struggling to find secure housing. At the film’s premiere last month,  Tavi said, “I agreed to participate [in the film] because I wanted to draw attention to the issue of homelessness, because there was a chance to change something. I learned I wasn’t alone.” That feeling resonated with Berkeley students, staff, and administrators who spoke as part of the panel discussion about housing and food insecurity among Berkeley students that followed the premiere.

The film delves into the complex systemic reasons for student homelessness, talks about the food and housing resources available to students on campus, and explores creative long-term solutions. With the assistance of Cal’s DKA film fraternity, the documentary was produced by student interns of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board through the Public Service Center program Cal in the Local Government. Intern Robbi Li, who directed the documentary, explained that he wanted to destigmatize the issue and make it easier to discuss. “A lot of times we worry about our methods, what if I say the wrong thing? That shouldn’t discourage people from reaching out,” Li said.

One of the panelists who also appeared in the documentary, Basic Needs Committee Chair Ruben Canedo, wanted students to know there are resources and assured students that they are not alone: “Too many students suffer in silence,” Canedo said. “Reach out to whomever you feel comfortable reaching out to: to your professor, to your counselor, to the EOP program, to the Dean of Students Office, to me.”

Taylor Harvey (L) and Calixtho Lopes, founders of the Homeless Student Union. (UC Berkeley photo by Jill Schlessinger)

Taylor Harvey (L) and Calixtho Lopes, founders of the Homeless Student Union, took part in the panel discussion. (UC Berkeley photo by Jill Schlessinger)

Two other panelists, Cal student Taylor Harvey and alumni Calixtho Lopes, explained that they founded the Homeless Student Union so that students would have a place to get support from peers and to connect students to resources.

Harvey explained: “We wanted to ensure that the students had a place where they knew they could come if they were facing homelessness, to create a space to have conversations about homelessness and housing insecurity, and to forge solutions.”

Cruz Grimaldo, assistant vice chancellor and director of Financial Aid, who was in the documentary and attended the premier, spoke of the resources students can get through the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office, including emergency funds, financial literacy training, and peer-to-peer assistance programs. “Our goal is to provide basic needs for all students. And we know that especially for low-income students we are that lifeline.”

The Berkeley financial aid office also partners with student and community organizations so that students can access even more assistance than what the Financial Aid office can legally offer. An example is the Student Advocate’s Office, which obtained a grant to provide temporarily displaced or homeless students with emergency housing funds for a period of 2–4 weeks.

Panelist Fabrizio Mejia, vice chancellor of Student Equity and Success, talked about some of the initiatives the university has undertaken to support students, including establishing the Berkeley Food Pantry, providing assistance to formerly incarcerated students to find housing, and partnering with student groups including the ASUC. He thanked students for sharing their stories and, of student homelessness, said “I’ll continue to work on it as long as I’m alive.”

The film also examines the complex economics behind the shortage of affordable housing in Berkeley. According to Professor Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design, the high cost of housing throughout the Bay Area forces prospective homeowners to crowd the rental market and young professionals to live in housing that had historically been rented by students. As Dean Wolch explains in the film, these populations “have more buying power. This is pricing students out of the market.”

One of the creative solutions proposed in the film was connecting homeless students to homeowners in the Berkeley area willing to provide a place to live at below market rent. In attendance at the event was Margo Smith, class of ‘77, School of Public Health, and long-time Berkeley resident. Smith has taken in homeless students and urged Berkeley residents and alumni to pull together as a community.

Housing and Food Resources

Campus resources are available to assist with housing and food year-round, including urgent and long-term needs. The university recognizes that the cost of living is high for Berkeley students, and if a student is struggling to find the financial means to secure housing, the campus has many options available to help finance the cost of their education, including tuition and living expenses.

  • Financial AId & Scholarships has many programs to help students, including one-on-one financial aid guidance and special programs to help students in urgent need.
  • Bears for Financial Success provides students with financial wellness resources and long-term solutions to help address the housing or food insecurity issues they may experience.
  • Cal Rentals can help students with off-campus housing options.
  • Student Legal Services helps students by providing counsel and guidance, including landlord disputes, among other services.
  • The Food Assistance Program provides eligible students with assistance for short-term needs, such as in-semester breaks, including student loans and meal points.
  • UC Berkeley Food Pantry provides emergency non-perishable food to UC Berkeley students while they explore campus food security resources.
  • The Bear Pantry provides support to student parents as an emergency food supply.

This story is by Jill Schlessinger, with UC Berkeley’s Division of Student Affairs.