February 25th, 2022

Michael Tubbs is the Founder of EPIC and the former Mayor of Stockton.  

I recently had the privilege of visiting with approximately 40 Compton College students as well as my friend, Dr. Keith Curry, the president of the school.

As I wrote previously, these community listening sessions, which EPIC is conducting statewide, are at the heart of our work—a chance to hear about people’s experiences, needs, ideas, and the things they want their California elected representatives to know about their lives.  

Some of what I heard I was already somewhat familiar with, like Dr. Curry and Compton College’s commitment to doing everything they can to help students meet their basic needs.  

For example, the school’s CARES program helps students who are single parents with costs like gas, transportation, and school supplies; providing child care referrals; and career, academic and personal counseling. Additionally, since hunger is an issue among students, the school has a dedicated staff member to help navigate the sometimes challenging CalFresh benefits system. During the pandemic, the community college also stepped up to provide students with computers, hotspots, and other resources they needed to be successful during remote learning.

One thing that struck me is the extent to which housing affordability and stability is a top concern for students—not for a few of them, or half of them, but for all of them.  I think sometimes we envision community college students as living at home with their parents, and commuting to school. But many are older than traditional students, or parents themselves, or traveling between full- or part-time jobs and school. 

Claudia talked about being homeless a few times as a college student and studying for finals in a motel.  She said a lot of people are surprised she’s been able to persevere.  “For me, it’s do or die.  You feel like it’s the only way you’re going to be liberated from poverty.” 

Luz, her husband, and child live with her cousins for $850 per month, but the cousins are now moving. She broke down because she hasn’t been able to find anything affordable. “It’s hard to focus on work when thinking, ‘Where am I going to live? What am I going to do?’” Luz is studying to be a teacher and says she aspires to work on behalf of people who are too often forgotten by those in positions of power.

Dr. Curry has submitted a $77 million housing proposal to the state that would include family housing. If we want to maximize the chances for community college students to pursue their dreams we have to make housing possible, just as we do at the university level.

Students also shared stories about turning to the safety net during the pandemic, and it is clear that major work is needed to simplify our benefits system and to treat people with the dignity we all deserve, particularly at such a vulnerable moment.  

There were stories of people being told by one jurisdiction that they needed to go to a different one in order to apply for a benefit, but then being told by that jurisdiction to go back to the original one—and then the same thing happening repeatedly. There were lost applications.  There was a need for cooperation from landlords to obtain pandemic rental assistance, which left people at the mercy of the landlord. There was a fear of applying for benefits because it was difficult to understand eligibility rules, and worry that if someone was approved but then later ruled ineligible, their current benefits would be sanctioned.  There were invasive questions about past relationships, judgment about appearance, requests for the same documents repeatedly, and sometimes outright rudeness. 

Dr. Curry suggested we should be able to figure out a “common application” so that people answer questions just one time in order to determine all benefits they are eligible for. And at EPIC, we are working with partners for a single, user-friendly point of entry for people seeking assistance—so that state agencies and local counties structure their processes around the needs of real people, not bureaucratic systems.

One student, Sadia, said that we need more people who are “passionate about helping people”—who have an attitude of “if you feel broken, I’m here to help you.” She’s right. There is nothing inherently wrong with anyone who struggles—the issue is with the struggle, not the person. And a lot of those struggles—like hunger, lack of housing, poverty—shouldn’t even exist, so we are working with Californians and policymakers to eliminate them.

Finally, what is clear to me is that many people in power—who often think that poverty is caused by a lack of motivation, or lack of hard work, or some other “lack” of character—don’t have a clue. At Compton College, we see that the exact opposite is true. I heard story after story—of people working, studying, taking care of parents and children, helping others even as they faced their own intensely high-pressure situations, suffering loss and trauma, and keeping at it with grit and grace. 

It is The Setup that is failing people who are barely getting by—unaffordable housing, unnecessary hunger, low-wage jobs, byzantine assistance systems, and more.  We will continue to work with our friends at Compton College—and communities we will visit across the state—to Upset The Setup so each and every one of us is seen as deserving, and we all have equal opportunity to thrive.