Unreported and underserved: Community college student veterans struggle finding housing
Community college counselors are concerned about the number of unhoused or housing-insecure student veterans on their campuses.
Advocates say more affordable student housing options, along with comprehensive support services that reflect unhoused veterans’ specific needs, are needed. According to 2023 data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles County (excluding Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach) increased 12% from last year. The number of unsheltered veterans rose 3%.
But, the exact number of student veterans affected across community college campuses is not tracked, according to Anthony Allman, executive director of Vets Advocacy.
“We know student homelessness at large is an issue within the California community college system,” said Allman. “To what extent veterans are wrapped up in this dilemma is currently unknown. I think there’s an assumption that since the Post-9/11 GI Bill offers a generous living stipend that student veteran homelessness doesn’t exist. We should challenge that assumption with empirical analysis, but if the data isn’t collected, there’s no way to study the issue.”
Allman said higher education is a pathway to social mobility and there should be policies remedying barriers that prevent student veteran achievement. Student housing is rare at community colleges across California, according to a 2023 report from the Affordable Student Housing Taskforce commissioned by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. Only 12 out of 116 colleges offer student housing—a gap that needs to be addressed.
Hurdles to stable housing hard to clear
Paul Samaniego, a 30 year-old U.S. Army veteran and student at East Los Angeles College, completed his military service in October 2021. He returned to his dad’s home, rejoining his sisters. His father passed away two months later, leaving him and his siblings unable to afford the $3,000 rent.
“That pushed me to leave and for a whole year, I was just working 9-to-5 jobs, whatever I could find—maintenance, truck driving,” Samaniego said. He ultimately decided to join the National Guard because he had nowhere to go.
“It was a paycheck and I had somewhere to eat, sleep, shower,” he said. “Wherever they needed someone to go for a mission, I jumped on orders.”
Once Samaniego connected with the Veteran Resource Center, he was able to return to classes at ELAC in February. But, he still has no permanent residence.
“I’m floating around wherever the wind takes me,” Samaniego said, adding that he is currently rooming with a friend who lives in Orange County. “But come November, he’s moving out. I have nowhere to go. So, I’m kind of plotting my next move at the moment.”
This is not Samaniego’s first time experiencing homelessness. He was unhoused off and on with his dad when he was a kid up until high school. He survives off income he receives from the GI bill to make ends meet, but said it’s difficult managing rent, bills and gas.
“It gets a little tough, you know,” Samaniego said. “But I’ve already been down, so now I kind of know what to do to stay above ground, like using resources here at the school, helping me stay afloat. You know, trials and tribulations. Sometimes you gotta take it one step at a time.”
Dustin Rodriguez, 24, is also an ELAC student veteran. He said he constantly faced housing insecurity while using GI Bill benefits.
“The issue was that nobody would rent me a place,” said Rodriguez, who served four years as a Marine. “I didn’t have a W-2 form that showed proof of income. I had to communicate with a lot of other veterans here at the Veterans Resource Center. I realized a lot of others are facing the same issues that I was going through.”
As a workaround, student veterans turn to their cars or crash at others’ places. Rodriguez ended up staying with a neighbor, describing it as pure luck.
“She rented me a place without having to show proof of income or anything like that,” he said.
Getting past the stigma of asking for help
Rodriguez said many veterans are reluctant to ask for help and are not aware of the resources available to them.
“When [veterans] get out, they’re in college, and they think that they’re on their own,” he said. “A lot of information goes from word of mouth. We share it with each other when we’re hanging out.”
Rodriguez said he was never nervous about re-entering civilian life, thinking it would be “simple and easy.” But, he never considered all the “tedious” stuff he would have to catch up on like extensive credit requirements for renting an apartment in Los Angeles or obtaining a car loan.
Carol Calandra, director of the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, knows the challenges veterans face finding housing all too well. She said there are roughly five student veterans per semester on her campus who are experiencing homelessness (which include couch-surfing or sleeping in cars or motels), but suspects the unreported number is pushing 20.
“We ebb and flow here with our homeless student population,” Calandra said, crediting the college for bringing in many partners to help. But even with these additional resources to offer student veterans, she said it’s difficult.
“I don’t need veterans sleeping in cars in my parking lot, which I have right now,” Calandra said, adding that they also had a student veteran sleeping in the park. “We’re buying him a tent every, you know, three or four months.”
Calandra said some student veterans could go live with family. But after serving in the military, going home can exacerbate mental health issues because family members don’t understand what they’ve been through. Given that, sometimes it is easier to sleep in a car and enroll in a gym class on campus so they can take showers. Calandra said her veterans do not know how or are reluctant to apply for unemployment benefits once they exit the military, since technically, they are displaced workers. She said it’s also a battle to get student veterans to apply for financial aid.
“In a veteran’s brain, they think, ‘Oh, I get benefits. Let me leave financial aid for someone else that needs it worse than I do,’” she said. Another big issue is that most student veterans have no credit, references or haven’t applied to anything in their lives because the military provides basic needs like housing. Many student veterans receive assistance for housing through vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s VASH program at the Veterans Administration, similar to Section 8. Through VASH, veterans are responsible for a certain portion of the rent and the remainder is covered by the voucher.
“Try to explain that to a landlord,” Calandra said. “How do we change that verbiage? It is a benefit afforded to veterans that meet certain criteria, but the minute you say Section 8, it’s out the window, especially here in [the Pasadena] area. People are like, ‘Oh, those people?’”
Battling mental health issues
Jessica Peak, director of the Veterans Resource Center at East Los Angeles College, said a lot of student veterans’ stressors are tied to the complicated system of how benefits are distributed. Students who are honorably discharged from the military after four years are 100% eligible for Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) under the GI Bill Educational Benefits, which provides nearly $3,200 per month toward housing. But, if a servicemember leaves after two years, that amount is much less, said Peak.
In order to qualify for the nearly $3,200 maximum each month, Peak said veterans must enroll in 12 units, which is considered full-time. But that brings additional challenges because some veterans struggle with a full-time class load, especially if they are providing for a family and working full-time.
“We’re forcing our student veterans to enroll into a number of units and setting them up for failure because they have to get that $3,200,” Peak said. “If not, they’re gonna face these housing insecurities.”
Beyond hindering academic success, there are also serious mental health risks. According to a 2022 report on the state of student veterans in California community colleges, 40% of student veterans have served in combat zones, and 77% have served one to eight years in the military.
“The psychological effects of living unhoused is depression,” said Brenda Threatt, assistant director of veteran services at El Camino College, in a May briefing given to the County of Los Angeles Military and Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Advisory Commission. “Post-traumatic stress plays into it, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, paranoia, and ultimately suicide attempts. When all of those things are burdening a student or a veteran, it is overwhelming and hopeless.”
Connecting veterans with on-campus resources
Threatt said there are approximately 55,000 veterans and active duty service members and dependents enrolled in California community colleges each year. Moreover, many veterans do not report their homelessness due to shame, failure, alienation and helplessness. Although colleges are designed to educate students and provide information about things such as academic counseling, financial aid transfer and community support, there is very little information on housing for students, particularly housing suited for veterans needs, said Threatt.
“We find out [a veteran is unhoused] through a conversation or from one veteran to another, or when a veteran is really in dire straits and needing assistance,” she said. The psychological effects of these stressors take a toll on student veterans’ mental health, leading to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, panic attacks, paranoia and even suicide attempts. The 2022 report on the state of student veterans in California community colleges found that over two-thirds of student veterans experienced anxiety and depression themselves, and more than half knew a fellow veteran who had problems with anxiety, depression or PTSD. More than half of veterans knew a fellow veteran who experienced concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that showed up in daily student life by having difficulties falling asleep or concentrating.
More than 25% of veterans surveyed knew a fellow veteran who has attempted to die by suicide; 6% of them admitted they tried themselves. Fewer than one in five student veterans surveyed said they used on-campus mental or physical health services available to them.Many were unaware of, or unsure how, to access care. Threatt wants dedicated veteran case managers, mental health support and housing navigators to work collaboratively with housing providers to acquire housing for veteran students or shelter pending permanent housing.
“When we do that, we will get veterans, students who are able to successfully navigate the education system, graduate and have a life that we all think our veterans deserve to have,” she said during her presentation.
Threatt’s concerns about investing in student veterans has merit. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed in the 2022 report said they thought their colleges supported veterans, but that was down nearly 4% from the 2018 survey. When asked if they felt comfortable being on campus, that number was down 8%. When asked if they felt the college embraced veterans, it was down nearly 11%.
Promoting the resources and benefits available at veteran resource centers will require an investment from the state to improve accessibility. Peak, director of ELAC’s resource center, said there should be more meaningful outreach for service members once they separate from the military, starting with a handover to the veteran resource center at the college they’ll be attending.
Christopher Moreno, 30, is a recent graduate of East Los Angeles College preparing to transfer to a four-year institution. He was in the Army for nearly seven years.
Moreno said a couple of months before leaving the military, they make service members take classes, but the Army does not provide a lot of information about next steps. It wasn’t until he started at ELAC in January 2021, that he found the Veterans Resource Center and realized how much support was available to him.
“I think the biggest issue is that most [student veterans] don’t know,” said Moreno. “But it depends on the veteran. If they don’t seek help, it’s never gonna come.”
Not knowing makes Rodriguez, the other veteran enrolled at ELAC mad. “I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time compared to someone else who may not be getting the same help that I’m getting,” he said.
The pandemic had a profound impact on college operations. Student veterans who entered college for the first time during the pandemic—as well as those who primarily attend classes in the evening or online—may not know about all the services and support available.
Word of mouth is how much of the information veterans need gets around, according to Alexandra Saturnino, a U.S. Army veteran who also attends ELAC. She hopes there’s more investment to increase outreach across community colleges. Although the Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor’s Office funds veteran resource centers across its nine campuses, funds are stretched thin, often leaving one person at each center wearing multiple hats. Peak said there isn’t a standard across the board being met for all the community colleges.
In a perfect world, Peak said the Veterans Administration would consider the needs of special populations within the veteran community, such as college students, whose needs are very unique.
Samaniego, the Army veteran who doesn’t have stable housing, said he’s determined to finish his degree despite challenges.
“Coming out of the military, I just wanna prove to myself that I can actually get a degree, that I can move forward in life showing that I can actually be successful. I did the Army thing, right? Basically right outta high school. If I overcame that, I can knock over the education obstacle as well.”