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The Grove 

College of the Redwoods' groundbreaking program to help homeless students

Annamarie Whipple.

Mark McKenna

Annamarie Whipple.

Seven years ago, Annamarie Whipple moved to Humboldt County but when her partner died unexpectedly a couple of years later, she found herself homeless, living at the Eureka Rescue Mission.

Struggling to find a job while living at the mission, Whipple decided to save up some money for a motorhome and, most importantly, to go back to school.

"Whenever someone receives a degree or a certificate, it makes you more employable, it likely secures your employment," Whipple said. "So, I didn't want to just sit there and complain. I wanted to do something about it and decided to go back to school."

Whipple, 45, soon realized that living both housing and food insecure while going to school wasn't easy. It was difficult for her to get to and from CR's Eureka campus while leaving her motorhome parked in Samoa or on streets in the main part of town. And living out of a motorhome was hard for Whipple, who has a disability and suffers from chronic pain. She often struggled to get a good night's sleep and regularly fell ill.

It was hard to focus on school, Whipple said, adding that she took advantage of all the programs and resources CR had to offer, from its food pantry to its free clothing closet. But it didn't seem like enough and Whipple was on the brink of quitting.

"I couldn't handle it," she said. "I was in a really bad situation: tired, cold, stressed and constantly getting sick. I wasn't able to get a good night's sleep. And then it happened: I was accepted for the Room and Board Scholarship."

The Room and Board Scholarship, which supplied Whipple with a room, a bed and a meal plan, is just one part of the school's efforts to combat student homelessness. According to CR President Keith Flamer, the college began making efforts after it partnered in April of 2018 with Humboldt State University and the Humboldt County Office of Education for the North Coast Homelessness and Housing Insecurity Summit. But Kintay Johnson, CR's director of special programs, believes the effort actually started before that, back in the 2016-2017 school year, when the college opened up its food pantry program.

"HCOE, HSU and CR got together and talked about housing and food insecurity among students in kindergarten through 12th grades, at community colleges and four-year universities, and heard individual stories," Johnson said. "They said, 'Hey, there's a problem and we need a plan to address this.'"

And the problem is widespread.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, along with the Hope Center for College, administered a survey of 40,000 college students in 57 participating community colleges in California, including College of the Redwoods, from 2016 through 2018. The report found that 50 percent of participants had been food insecure within 30 days of taking the survey. Additionally, it found that 60 percent of participants had been housing insecure, with another 19 percent having experienced homelessness within a year of taking the survey.

Recently, the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury released a report on the county's homeless crisis. Using HCOE's criteria for homelessness, the report found that 8 percent of the local K-12 student population had experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year.

"Homeless percentages are similar or even higher for college students," the report states, citing information indicating that 11 percent of CR students who applied for scholarships "lacked housing" and 19 percent of HSU students reported being housing insecure at some point during the prior year.

The terms "housing insecure" and "homeless" are sometimes woven together, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homelessness is defined as someone doesn't have a permanent home and is living on the streets or in the shelter system, whether it be an emergency shelter or transitional housing. But those who are housing insecure, Sullivan said, simply cannot rely on their living situations because, for example, they are couch-surfing, living in an overcrowded space or, like Whipple, living in a vehicle.

When Whipple learned of the Room and Board Scholarship from Justin Fishman, CR's off-campus housing liason, she didn't think she would qualify because she didn't see herself as necessarily homeless since she had her motorhome. Once Fishman explained to her that she qualified because she was "housing insecure" and what that meant, she immediately applied. The scholarship made a tremendous difference.

"It's amazing how many things you don't have to worry about anymore and what a warm bed and a good night's sleep could do for you," Whipple said. "You're more focused and concentrated. Having a secure place to sleep really improves your well-being."

The scholarship itself is the result of a fundraising effort that coupled private donations with grants. Piloted in the spring semester, it made three rooms, with a combined six beds, and meal plans available and reserved them for students who were seeking "a safe place to sleep and enough food to eat while dedicating themselves to earning an education." The school will expand the program and offer two more scholarships in the fall. According to CR Vice President of Student Development Joe Hash, it has enough funds to maintain the scholarships for two more years.

Whipple said she was excited to finally have a safe space to live but added she quickly came to realize there's a second level of insecurity while living on the scholarship.

"You have to meet certain criteria to receive the scholarship, like an average GPA," Whipple said. "So, if I don't do well on a test, I'm afraid of getting kicked out, you know. My home is dependent on my grades."

The college's Eureka campus also set up a food pantry in its resource center, which helps students with CalFresh and Medical applications, and makes referrals to other forms of assistance, both on- and off-campus. CR is hoping to broaden the program and install food pantries at its Hoopa and Del Norte campuses this fall, Johnson said.

This summer, CR began piloting a nighttime parking permit that coincides with Assembly Bill 302, a proposed law that would require all community colleges to allow students living in their vehicles to park their cars in a designated campus parking lot, giving them a safe space to sleep. (Having passed the Assembly, A.B. 302 is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.) Flamer said CR decided to pilot its safe parking program during the summer, when the school has a lower student population. So far, the school has not had any takers for the program but plans to also provide restrooms and showers to permit holders, as well as security guards monitoring the parking grounds for safety.

When the Journal asked Whipple if she would have taken the offer for an overnight parking permit when she was living in her motorhome, she promptly said yes and later described her time in Eureka as "dangerous," especially for homeless women.

"I was attacked twice when I lived in Eureka," Whipple said. "If I had the opportunity to stay somewhere safe, where there's security around and restrooms and showers available, yes, I would have definitely taken it."

Christina Jimenez, a spokesperson for the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, said in an email to the Journal that many community colleges had been working to provide basic needs services before the Hope Center survey but that it spurred colleges to pay closer attention.

"College of the Redwoods is offering exemplary services to their students," Jimenez said in an email. "They are ahead of the curve by offering [room and board] scholarships with a meal plan. However, other California colleges are doing innovative activities ... including offering emergency grants (which can be used for housing), offering hotel vouchers and working with local host families for student housing."

HSU is also working to provide basic needs services to its students, like Oh Snap!, a food pantry program that includes a fresh produce stand in the fall and a pop-up thrift store program. The university has also created an off-campus housing liaison position — the first of its kind in the CSU system — aimed at finding solutions for students who are homeless or housing insecure. Chant'e Catt, HSU's first off-campus housing coordinator, said she works on a case-by-case basis to help students "navigate the local rental market."

The off-campus housing department also works with community organizations like Equity Arcata and Humboldt Area Foundation to advocate for the creation of affordable student housing in the community. It also works closely with the Educated Landlord and Tenant Program, which seeks to make HSU students and local property owners better tenants and landlords, respectively, by teaching about implicit bias, indigenous perspectives, personal finance, emotional support and service animals.

"HSU faculty and staff are helping to lead the way as part of the California State University Basic Needs Initiative through research, webinars, policy advocacy, program development and grant proposal writing," Catt said in an email to the Journal.

Since she started working at the department, Catt has worked one-on-one to help 480 students find housing and is now finalizing a Housing Deposit Program that would help students pay for the upfront costs of moving into off-campus housing and an Emergency Housing Program, which would take in students who don't have the financial means as a form of short-term emergency shelter.

"I'm super proud of what our county is doing, super proud of what HSU and CR are doing," Catt said. "And the support from our community is unbelievable. It's an honor to work in a community that sees that we need to work on housing, that housing is an important part of healing our community."

HSU also recently received a $100,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation to support the school's effort to combat "financial challenges faced by students." According to a press release from the university, the grant will support access to health care, adversity support, scholarships for low-income and underserved students, and expand affordability programs. (HSU Interim Vice President of Student Advancement Frank Whitlatch said $20,000 of the grant will go toward supporting the Emergency Housing Program.)

"[The grant] is targeted at some really promising services and programs that [HSU] developed to support students, to help them financially and to help them stay in school and graduate," Whitlach said in a voicemail responding to a Journal inquiry.

Because CR and HSU each fall under different governance systems with different policies and mandates from the state, they can't always offer the same services, like CR's Room and Board Scholarship and parking permit program. But both schools continue to work with HCOE (as the "three pillars," as Catt described them) to develop a 20-year plan to eliminate food and housing insecurity among students, kindergarten through college, in the county. The effort is a direct result of the April 2018 summit.

On top of teaming up with HSU and HCOE, each of CR's services is part of a bigger picture. The college is working on putting together its own five-year plan — called the Growth Resource Outreach Valued and Empowerment program or GROVE, for short — to decrease the number of its students facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Johnson, who is working to write the five-year plan, often works with students facing such challenges as he oversees some of CR's special programs and resources, including EOPS, Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education, CalWORKs, the Food Pantry and the Foster and Kinship Care Education program.

The GROVE program, which would be implemented in the fall, lays out the basic goals officials hope will be met by 2025: Increase the success of students who are housing and food insecure, while also reducing housing and food insecurity among CR students.

The goals will be measured yearly using the college's own internal assessment standards, which Johnson said closely align with the college's accreditation standards, and include GPA and units earned, as well as degree and certificate completions, and transfers to a four-year university. Johnson said much of the program comes down to student support, as the name indicates.

"We named the five-year plan GROVE, kind of like a redwood grove," Johnson said. "When you think of redwoods growing near each other and together, it's a grove. It's a community."

Johnson said the program is really about investing in student success, realizing it's an investment in society. He used psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" to explain.

"The top of the pyramid is where we see self-actualization and where we see success," he said. "The bottom — the foundation of our success — is where food and housing are placed. We cannot reach the top without a solid base. Students need resources and without resources they can't be successful and be able to contribute to society. We should do everything and anything to help our students. [The California Community College System] trains 70 to 80 percent of the public workforce. The success of our students is tied to the economic success of the state."

Whipple is finishing her associate degree in computer science with an eye toward a career in computer networking and security systems. She is also hoping to start a Student Housing Advocacy Alliance club at CR this fall before she transfers next year to HSU or maybe University of California at Davis. The club, she said, is about making sure students feel a sense of belonging or, as Johnson might say, feel that grove of redwoods around them.

"We're all in the same situation," Whipple said about the club. "Let's get together and help each other out. Maybe there's going to be a group of people who like each other enough to become roommates and rent a place together. It's stressful worrying about where to sleep. It's embarrassing and kind of shameful. It's better when you know that you're not alone."

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct inaccurate information included in the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury's report.

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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Iridian Casarez

Iridian Casarez was a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2019-2023.

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