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Housing Insecurity at UCLA

X had dreamed of attending UCLA since she first visited the campus in elementary school.

But when she finally came to UCLA, the college experience she had hoped for was interrupted by periods of housing and food insecurity.

X is a fifth-year humanities student who has experienced homelessness while at UCLA. She has requested anonymity and has chosen to be identified under the pseudonym X, which reflects her identity as gender nonconforming.

X grew up in Compton, California, where she lived with her mother, two older sisters and occasionally her grandmother. For much of her childhood, her family lived below the poverty line.

“My mom had schizophrenia and she didn’t have the medical resources she needed,” X said. “Taking care of the family was put on her children.”

X said she knew she wanted to go to UCLA one day after she took a field trip to the campus when she was in elementary school.

“It was a way for me to get out of my household and make opportunities for myself,” X said.

X had aspirations of becoming a doctor when she started attending UCLA, but said she found little representation of students of color or LGBTQ students in the biology department.

Instead, X turned to the humanities, which she found to be more supportive of her identity. She added the topics discussed in her courses overlapped with what she found interesting in her biology classes.

Despite finding a place in the humanities, X said her studies were disrupted by periods of housing insecurity.

After living in the dorms during her first and second years at UCLA, X became homeless in June 2016. She alternated between living in her car, her home in Compton and couch surfing.

At the time, X had been financially supporting herself and her mother by working two jobs while balancing a full course load.

When she became unable to support herself and her mother, she researched her options on campus, and contacted UCLA’s Economic Crisis Response Team for housing assistance. ECRT is a program facilitated by Student Affairs that assists students in immediate financial distress. After X contacted ECRT, she was placed in a university apartment.

However, living in the apartment created a new set of challenges for X.

The first day X arrived at the apartment, her key did not work, so she knocked on the door. She saw people looking back at her through the peephole, but they did not let her in. X said she had to contact UCLA Housing to give her access instead.

“(The roommates) didn’t say ‘hi’ or ‘welcome,’” X said. “They said, ‘We like to keep things clean around here.’”

While X was living in the apartment, she said her roommates ignored her, but acted friendly with each other.

“They let me know I was unwelcome as a black student, and as someone who is gender nonconforming and queer,” X said.

She also said her roommates stole her property, which she reported to UCLA Housing, and told her they did not want to live with her because of her disability. X is registered with the Center for Accessible Education because she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When she spoke with a UCLA Housing mediator to manage the discomfort she felt in her apartment, X said the mediator told her race-, gender- and sexuality-based discrimination is common in UCLA dorms and apartments.

After completing mediation, UCLA Housing staff told X they would assign her to a different university apartment, rather than moving her roommates. The new unit was more expensive, and UCLA did not adjust her financial aid package to compensate for its higher price, she said.

When she moved to the new university apartment, she now had her own bedroom. But X said she continued to feel unsafe while living in the new unit because her randomly assigned roommate was undergoing an emotional crisis.

“The roommate deteriorated to the point where she had a breakdown,” X said. “She began to throw plates at me ... she started smashing stuff … (and) it ended with her reaching for a knife.”

X said she disarmed her roommate and immediately called UCLA Housing, requesting medical assistance. Instead, UCLA Housing dispatched campus police, who then called the Los Angeles Police Department, X said.

Following that incident, X said UCLA Housing removed her from the unit and placed her in an even more expensive studio apartment, again without adjusting her financial aid. Consequently, X fell behind on payments, and lost her housing for the summer.

She remained homeless until January 2017.

X continued to work and attend school, but she said it was difficult to manage her schedule because of her homelessness.

“It was a struggle to be homeless because I still have these classes I need to take, but when I leave this class I have to figure out where I’m going to park my car,” X said.

X said she went to the Community Programs Office Food Closet while she was homeless, but did not find appealing or healthy food options. She added she has recently visited the Food Closet and considers the current options better than last year’s.

X said there were times last year when her life did not feel sustainable, but she continued to focus on survival.

“There were points (when) I couldn’t envision myself in the future,” she said.

In December 2016, X was facing an academic hold on her UCLA account because she had an unpaid housing balance from the charges she accrued when she was moved to increasingly expensive housing units. She was unable to enroll in classes for winter quarter 2017, and consequently could not receive her financial aid disbursement.

Being unable to enroll for classes in winter 2017 meant that X would lose access to her university housing, medical resources and education.

She reached out to a faculty mentor she took a class with, visiting law professor Beth Ribet, for advice.

After X explained her situation, Ribet asked three of X’s other instructors, gender studies professor Grace Hong, law lecturer Claudia Peña and gender studies associate professor Sarah Haley, to help advocate for her to Student Affairs and Financial Aid and Scholarships.

Ribet said she, Hong, Haley and Peña drafted a memorandum to send to Student Affairs detailing how X accrued fees while living in university apartments, with the intent of restoring X’s enrollment and, subsequently, her financial aid.

Ribet said she received a response to the memorandum the night before X’s opportunity to enroll in courses for winter quarter closed, which stated the holds had been lifted.

However, the next week, X was dropped from her classes for not meeting the satisfactory academic progress unit requirement because she had an incomplete course from spring 2016.

Again, Ribet and the other instructors intervened. X wrote the final essays required to complete the course, and her financial aid was restored after her grade was changed.

“To keep getting those notices was such a hard burden on X ... (if) every time you’re told your financial aid is being taken away, you wound up homeless,” Ribet said.

Ribet said that X appealed her remaining housing debt, and UCLA eventually waived her housing payments from the previous year.

Hong, who also teaches in the Asian American studies department, said trying to help X has changed her perspective of how the university attempts to support students.

“The bureaucratic insanity … makes it hard to see who to go to and who is in charge of what,” Hong said.

X is currently in a UCLA Housing studio apartment and preparing to apply for law school.

She said she wants to share her story now, before she graduates, because she believes there are other students who haven’t been able to come forward about similar situations.

“I’m tired all the time and still going through a lot of trauma,” X said. “I know I’m a survivor, I know it takes a lot of strength to have gotten through all of this.”

Painting, photography and poetry are outlets for X’s stress and trauma. She performs stand-up comedy when she has time between work and classes.

X said she volunteers with students in local, underserved communities to combine activism and art.

“We write poetry (and) draw on photos to express how different forms of oppression impact us,” she said.

X said she plans to attend law school to help others who experience race, class and gender discrimination. She added she hopes UCLA will address its policies surrounding these issues, including holding UCLA Housing residents accountable to anti-discrimination policies.

“I’m deeply admiring of X as an intellectual, as a community organizer, as my student and mentee,” Ribet said. “Her resilience, I think, has awed all of us and I am so deeply grateful that she reached out … for support because it would have been a real loss for this campus if she had not been able to continue and graduate.”