Are 9% of UC Santa Cruz students homeless?

UC Santa Cruz students on campus
UC Santa Cruz students on campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s a shocking number that has come up in debates ahead of June’s election. Lookout looks into where the number comes from and what it does and doesn’t mean.

At Lookout’s recent forum for State Assembly District 28 candidates, Joe Thompson — the 19-year-old candidate in the four-candidate race — shared a data point that caused many in the crowd to react: 9% of the UC Santa Cruz population is homeless.

The first-year UCSC student and successful organizer of the first Starbucks stores in California to vote for unionization made that point in the wider discussion of the homelessness during the forum.

What does that number mean, attendees asked after the event.

While that number is indeed shocking and important, Lookout aimed to understand how the university came to that finding.

The statistic comes from 2020’s UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, a survey the University of California conducts every two years at its 10 campuses. In April, UC sent out its 2022 survey to all UC students; it will be open until the end of June. UC will not make the results of the 2022 survey public until later in the year.

“The way the statistic gets shared and the question is asked, sometimes the nuance gets lost,” UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said this week. “The question is: In the last 12 months, have you ever lacked a safe, regular and adequate nighttime place to stay and sleep in the following lengths of time?”

The survey’s definition of lacking an adequate place to stay is as follows: “sleeping in vehicles, motels, campgrounds, homeless shelters, single-occupancy facilities or couches in other people’s homes.” The time periods asked about include the three academic quarters, breaks and summer months.

Joe Thompson, UCSC student, with bull horn addressing crowd
Joe Thompson, UCSC student and candidate for Assembly District 28, addressing the crowd of students protesting the lack of available housing on campus last week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The survey was sent out to the entire UCSC student body of 19,161 students, both graduate and undergraduate, in May 2020 via university email. Hernandez-Jason said 29% of enrolled students completed the survey.

Hernandez-Jason says there’s more to it than just the one blanket number.

“It is a question that gets into housing security and whether students are able to stay in safe and secure places … to take the response of that and say 9% of students are homeless, it assumes a lot,” Hernandez-Jason told Lookout.

With those provisions, it’s worth looking at UC Santa Cruz’s survey results compared to its nine sister campuses. Among all the campuses, UCSC saw its respondents report the highest level of homelessness and third-highest level of food insecurity, as shown below. UCSC had the highest percentage of students who had experienced homelessness of any university, and higher than the average of 5.5%.

A snapshot of the findings from the 2020 UC-wide survey
A snapshot of the findings from the 2020 UC-wide survey: UCSC reported the most students experiencing homelessness.
(Via University of California Accountability Report)

Rising sophomore Zennon Ulyate-Crow, who founded and leads the university Student Housing Coalition, said that in his first year at UCSC, he has met at least 15 people who have been housing-insecure, including couch surfing and sleeping in their vehicles. He expects the findings from this year’s survey to be even more dire.

“I would be shocked if this number didn’t go higher … other students are telling me this is the worst year they’ve had in trying to find housing,” he said. “Lower-priced properties just don’t exist for students anymore.”