Like a lot of college students, Matt Bodo moved back to campus this fall. He attends Foothill College, however, which doesn’t offer housing.
Bodo made do. He found a room to sleep in on campus where no one bothered him. The locker room showers open at 6 a.m. There’s also a food pantry on campus, along with a microwave and refrigerator for him to use.
The 20-year-old said he’s grateful for those comforts. Last summer, he lived in his car, which he parked outside of the warehouse where he was working.
“Luckily, it was a warehouse that had a shower,” he said, “so I lucked out again there.”
Bodo knows he isn’t the only college student struggling with housing insecurity, so he’s working to find rooms for students in similar situations. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab recently found that 14 percent of community college students in the United States are homeless. Santa Clara County had the seventh-highest population of homeless people in the nation in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Homeless youth are an invisible group of folks,” said Lorraine Flores, senior director of program development and impact at the Bill Wilson Center, a San Jose nonprofit organization that provides housing and family support. “They can pass as being housed, having a family, when in reality they’re sleeping on the streets.”
The Bill Wilson Center conducted a survey of high school and community college students in Santa Clara County in 2017 and discovered that 44 percent of community college students surveyed had been homeless or knew someone who had been homeless in the past six months. However, they only asked a sample of students from two community colleges.
Flores said she would like to organize another survey, but people experiencing homelessness are notoriously difficult to contact. The center also conducted a point-in-time count, where volunteers walked around counting how many homeless young people were on the streets or in shelters. They found 2,530 unaccompanied homeless youth and young adults in Santa Clara County on Jan. 24, 2017, a 175 percent increase from the 2015 point-in-time count.
From Los Altos Hills to homelessness
Like many homeless youth, Bodo bounced around from couch to couch after a series of disagreements with his family. He was living with his father, but they fought often and Bodo said eventually his father told him, “Get out and stay out.”
Since then, he’s made it his mission to find housing not just for himself, but for as many homeless Foothill students as he can. And he’s in a unique position to do so.
Bodo grew up with money.
The car he lived in for a summer? A 2000 Ford Mustang. He picked it out when he was 15.
“It’s red, it’s loud, it’s cool, that’s what I thought,” Bodo said.
But the summer he lived in it made him wish he’d gone for a more practical car – or at least one with four doors.
His father lives in a large house in Los Altos Hills, so Bodo knows firsthand the potential to house students near Foothill. That’s why he’s taken over an initiative at the college to match community college students with rooms in the area available for free or a reduced rent.
“I know that there are some older folks that would like to have somebody in their home – they just want to make sure that it’s somebody they can trust, so Foothill students would be great for that,” he said.
Former Foothill student Eoin O’Farrell launched the initiative last quarter with other members of the student government before he transferred from Foothill. Bodo, now an Associated Students of Foothill College senator, assumed leadership of the project this year. So far the group has created a spreadsheet of students who need housing, but they haven’t yet found anyone willing to open their home to a student in need.
Support from Foothill
Foothill College administrators know that Bodo is not alone, but they don’t know just how many students are struggling to find housing. Last year the school sent a survey to students that asked about housing, but so few students responded that the results aren’t accurate, said Sean Bogle, dean of student affairs and activities. They plan to put out another survey to assess the need.
In the meantime, the college sponsors the food bank where Bodo gets most of his food. Bogle said that 30-40 students visit the food bank each week for fresh produce, canned goods, toiletries and other necessities. He added that students who use the food bank are usually experiencing some kind of housing insecurity.
“We don’t have, currently, enough food to meet the demand,” Bogle said.
Bogle said the college is also interested in working with the city of Los Altos to develop spaces like garages into housing. The city recently amended its ordinances that govern the construction of accessory dwelling units to make it easier for residents to build secondary living spaces on their property.
Flores said homeless youth like Bodo are “invisible.”
“Most people think of homeless youth as street youth who look the part,” she said, “but there’s a large section of homeless youth who look like college students with a backpack on their back, nice clothes – and they sleep in a tent every night.”
The “invisible” still need support, she said. The Bill Wilson Center has a program in place with goals similar to Bodo’s, an initiative that finds temporary housing for LGBTQ homeless youth. Some of the young people left their homes because their parents weren’t supportive of their gender or sexuality, and some became homeless for other reasons. The center has found nine families willing to take in an LGBTQ young person and placed seven youth at those homes.
Amber Fogo, the center’s host home coordinator, started looking for families willing to host a young person a year ago. She posted fliers around town, took out online ads and talked to as many people as she could. Eventually, the hosts started trickling in. Fogo found nine families willing to let someone stay with them. The young people can only stay in each home for three to six months, and the Bill Wilson Center provides the host families with an $800 monthly stipend.
“Our goal is to stabilize a youth and get them off the street, off their friend’s couch,” Fogo said.
All of the young people who have participated in the program are now in stable housing.
Flores said that when homeowners are approached with the idea of housing a homeless person, they’re wary. She said that’s because the image of a homeless person they carry isn’t necessarily representative of the greater population of people who struggle to find housing. Many people experiencing housing instability are stable and free of drug problems, but those people are usually quieter and less noticeable than those who are unstable.
Fogo is hoping to find 15 more families willing to take in homeless LGBTQ youth, and Bodo will keep looking for housing for homeless students at Foothill.
“I’d love to see enough housing for all of our students who are struggling with homelessness,” Bodo said. “Not just at Foothill College, but in all of the Bay Area.”
After four years of on-and-off homelessness, Bodo found a room to rent in a shared house in Los Altos Hills in early November. It’s not far from his father’s house, but their relationship hasn’t improved. His four-night-a-week restaurant job covers the $900 per month rent, and he said that he’ll get used to living with six other people.