Los Angeles – Nearly 50 000 students attending the largest public university in the United States are homeless and many more go hungry, according to a new study made public this week.
The study, commissioned by California State University (CSU), which has 23 campuses across the western state and some 460 000 students, shows that 8.7 to 12% of students at the school are homeless while 21 to 24% lack a consistent food source.
"I reflected a bit on the number, and the number one in five students at Cal State are food insecure are a gasp," said Timothy White, chancellor of the Cal State system, as he presented the findings at a conference on Monday.
He said the study was commissioned in February of last year in order to quantify anecdotal evidence on the issue.
Staff, faculty and administrators were questioned along with students.
The report said that many struggling students felt their level of need was not understood by campus personnel and some were unaware of the assistance available to them.
One homeless student identified as Nikki said she had informed residential staff at one campus of her situation but was told it would not be "fair" to allow her to stay in the dorms.
"Well, if we do that for you, then we have to do that for everybody," she recounted being told.
Another student identified as Annie said she would welcome food assistance in order not to be stigmatised and made to "feel like you're walking with a scarlet letter on your chest."
'Best kept secret'
Staff interviewed said they limited "outreach and promotion" of assistance programs – such as food stamps or financial aid – for fear they would be deluged with requests given their limited resources.
"Often, programs and services were the 'best kept secret' of the campus because participants saved resources for the students experiencing the most acute crisis," the report said.
It added that the scale of the problem was also often misunderstood or minimised.
"In some cases, there was a normalising of the 'starving student' as part of the college vernacular," the report said.
"Some participants suggested, outside of rare circumstances, that students generally squander their resources with youthful behaviour."
The students who reported being homeless said they often "couch-surfed" or slept in their cars, in tents, in parking lots or railway stations.
The study, the first such survey in the country, said a system-wide commitment was needed to remedy the situation.
"CSU campuses are developing programs to support the needs of displaced and food insecure students," the report said.
"However, a greater understanding of this student population, their experiences accessing and utilising existing services, and their rates of retention is needed,"
Elizabeth Chapin, a spokesperson for CSU, said the study would continue for another two years to assess how widespread the issue of homelessness and hunger is among students and to come up with intervention programs to assist them and ensure they graduate.