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The View from the Van 

One of Cal Poly Humboldt's evicted students shares his search for answers

click to enlarge Cal Poly Humboldt students protest administration's push to prohibit students from living in vehicles on campus.


Cal Poly Humboldt students protest administration's push to prohibit students from living in vehicles on campus.

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, I along with at least one other student living in their vehicle in Cal Poly Humboldt parking lots, was visited at my RV by Associate Vice President for Student Success Steve St. Onge and Director of Risk Management and Safety Services Cris Koczera. The administrators told us the university would soon begin enforcing its parking regulation against overnight sleeping in vehicles. When I pressed them for a date when the enforcement would begin, they said it could be a week, or maybe two. When I asked them why, they alleged that students living in vehicles had been pooping in buckets and dumping the poop around campus.

About an hour after my in-person visit from the administrators, the university sent out a campuswide email that doubled down on the poop bucket allegation, saying that vehicle dwellers create an "unsafe and unsanitary" condition on campus and that we have sparked "fear and frustration" in our campus community. Us homeless students are well aware of the stigmatizations of vehicle dwellers and go to great lengths to maintain a clean, friendly and low profile on campus. The allegations were degrading and have yet to be backed up by evidence of any kind.

Additionally, the email posed a few solutions for the soon-to-be evicted students. These options included:

The Arcata House Partnership: Currently, the Arcata House Partnership has no vacancies and more than 3,000 people on a waitlist for its safe parking facility on Samoa Boulevard. Our understanding from Arcata House Partnership is that Cal Poly Humboldt had not contacted the nonprofit before recommending it to students. Even if there was availability, it is not a viable option for most vehicle dwellers. Our rigs are not fit to be used as daily commuters and most of us do not have any other means of transportation to commute to and from campus. Further, Humboldt County Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson emphasized during a recent Associated Students board of directors meeting that the safe parking program is transitional and not designed to house students for extended periods of time. On Nov. 1, the city of Arcata declared a "shelter crisis" due to the high rate of homelessness and need for funding to continue the Arcata House Partnership's safe parking program. Sending students there would sap valuable resources from families who have no other option available and put extra strain on a program already struggling to meet the needs of Humboldt County's homeless population. 

Temporary Housing: Temporary housing is just that — temporary. For a max stay of four weeks, the university has offered to house students who are currently living in their vehicles. 

RV parks: This option is the most puzzling. RV parks in Humboldt cost $700-plus a month. If students living in vehicles had the funds to pay that they would simply rent a room or an apartment. 

Towing help: The university offered to cover the towing cost (up to 5 miles from campus) for non-operational vehicles currently parked on campus. In this scenario, how does the university expect a student with a non-operational vehicle to commute back and forth from an undisclosed location about 5 miles from campus?

As the eviction could force many of us homeless students to drop out, myself and Maddy Montiel, a fellow vehicle dweller, took it upon ourselves to meet with any and all administrators we knew to be involved with the decision to evict. Both of us have missed three weeks of classes, work and extracurricular activities in an effort to get the university to change course and allow us to remain parked on campus overnight. Since Oct. 25, we have had meetings with: St. Onge, Koczera, Dean of Students Mitch Mitchell, Interim CFO Carla Ho'a, Police Chief Fernando Solorzano, Associate Dean of Students Molly Kresl and University Police Lt. Peter Cress. Additionally, we have spoken at the university senate and A.S. board of directors' meetings twice each. 

So, what did Maddy and I learn from two weeks of meetings with university administrators? The answers are troubling. 

The evidence that the school has for the alleged "pooping in buckets" is three photographs, two of which show white, 5-gallon buckets placed near vans. The inside of the bucket is not visible in either of the photos. Koczera said the parking patrol officer who took the photo did not look inside the bucket to ascertain its contents. So, it appears that school officials just assumed that the buckets contained poop. The third photo, according to Koczera, shows feces on pavement. Kozera said a van had moved from the area just before the photo was taken. Myself and Maddy pushed Koczera to publicize all evidence of the poop bucket allegation, but we were only allowed to see one photo that showed a white bucket near a Chevy van. The owner of the bucket is a graduate student named Caleb who said he uses it to forage for food in the forest.

Our main objective in meeting with administrators was to emphasize the opportunity for a positive change to result from the chaos created by the Oct. 25 email. Instead of forcing students onto the streets, why not look at other college campuses that have found creative solutions? Long Beach City College has a safe parking program that allows students to sleep in their vehicles on campus. Cal Poly Humboldt could use this as a template to improve upon for the unique needs in Humboldt County. Unfortunately, the university appears to have no interest in creating a safe parking option for students who are forced to live in their vehicles in order to afford college.

My understanding from speaking to a representative of Arcata House Partnership is that, at the city of Arcata's request, the nonprofit offered to help the university implement a safe parking program but Cal Poly Humboldt declined.

Additionally, we proposed a plethora of other solutions to university administrators to address their concerns. These included vehicle dwellers signing a release of liability form or agreeing to a code of conduct detailing basic rules we must follow while sleeping in vehicles on campus, paying an increased parking fee or purchasing a separate pass, or the university designing a separate parking area for vehicle dwellers (we proposed the G15 lot).

Another point we emphasized was the complete lack of dialogue between the university and vehicle dwellers. Administration never spoke to any of us about any developing issues. We were never given a chance to address their claims. The university's sudden decision to evict its homeless students was made with callous disregard and without any input or dialogue with those who would be most affected. 

Before deciding to live in my vehicle, I emailed the university parking enforcement in December of 2022 explaining my plan to sleep in my van on campus to which they replied, "Parking is enforced from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday. As long as you have a valid permit you will be able to park — also keep in mind that parking spaces are first come first served."

In addition to meeting with administrators over the past few weeks, we started a petition, which currently has 3,400 signatures. We also asked students, faculty and community members to write letters of support and send them to administrators. Multiple department heads, dozens of professors and hundreds of students and community members wrote letters of support on our behalf. 

Because of this army of support and complete lack of progressive dialogue with administrators, we decided to organize a protest Nov. 2. It was a last resort and not a measure we thought we'd have to go to. But, again, the university has been unwilling to seriously consider any of the options we presented. We had no choice. Despite the rain, more than 100 supporters showed up to march with us. The protest began at 11 a.m. and ran well past midnight. 

On Nov. 7, Maddy and I presented at the university Academic Senate meeting during an agenda item addressing the school's sudden enforcement of their overnight parking rule. The meeting ran past the scheduled end time and some administrators and faculty in attendance complained they weren't going to be paid overtime for their extra work. A handful of school officials left before the "sense of the senate" vote was even cast. Despite the complaints and walkouts, the resolution passed unanimously, officially asking that we be allowed to continue living in our vehicles until the end of the school year. While the unanimous vote is a victory, it does not guarantee homeless students will be allowed to sleep in their vehicles on campus. Unfortunately, the 'sense of the senate' only informs university President Tom Jackson Jr. of the senate's stance on the issue. The sole power to change the parking enforcement lies with Jackson, who has been completely silent on the issue. Jackson's chief of staff, Mark Johnson, has been the only administrator voicing support of the eviction and does not appear interested in finding a mutually beneficial solution. 

On Nov. 12 at noon, the official enforcement of the regulation against sleeping in one's vehicle overnight went into effect. The administration has been inconsistent in describing how the prohibition will be enforced and what the repercussions for violating it will be. We were first told citations would be issued, then our vehicles would be booted, and eventually towed. But, during a meeting with Cress and Kresl, we were told that overnight parking violations could result in academic probation, suspension or even arrest. 

On Nov. 13, at 6:14 a.m., myself and the RV parked adjacent were given a total of five parking tickets totaling $226. The citations listed "use of vehicle for living/overnight," "beyond designated lines" and "permit not properly displayed." Both my RV and my neighbors were parked within designated lines. The comment section of the citation lists "windows covered" as evidence for overnight sleeping. Citations were also placed on many other vans, buses and RVs parked on campus that morning. It appears no attempt was made by parking patrol to discern whether or not anyone was inside the vans when they cited them. 

It was made clear to us more than once by Koczera and Cress that our RVs could remain parked on campus, day and night, without issue so long as we didn't sleep in them. Cress himself detailed that probable cause would have to be established before citation or other disciplinary measure would be taken. 

Throughout these three weeks spent meeting with university administrators, the only constant has been the lack of respect, honesty and clarity. It has been disappointing, as a paying student of the university, to experience such a complete absence of professionalism by school officials. 

What has become abundantly clear over the past three weeks is that a majority of the student body, faculty, community members and even administrators are in support of Cal Poly Humboldt's vehicle dwellers. Administration has, thus far, been unable to clearly explain the catalyst for sudden eviction. We've been shown no evidence for the university's claim that we are "unsafe and unsanitary," nor have we been shown evidence to back up the claim that vehicle dwellers have created "fear and frustration" in the community. 

Despite this uphill battle, I believe there is still room for a positive outcome. But that change can only occur if Jackson and his staff are willing to open up a dialogue, explore creative options and fulfill their obligation as leaders of this university.

Brad Butterfield (he/him) is a journalism major at Cal Poly Humboldt, an education he has been able to afford thus far by living in his vehicle on campus.

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