Did you know there are 58,000 homeless college students in the U.S., 10,000 of them in California? In the wake of the Great Recession, UCLA formed the Economic Crisis Response Team (ECR TEAM) in 2009, to help its financially-distressed students. ERC provides meal vouchers and a two-week stay in the residence halls, among other resources for students who are in an immediate crisis, including eviction and domestic abuse. But many argue that two weeks simply isn’t enough time for young adults to sort through the complex issues that cause homelessness, all while taking a full load of classes.
That’s when a team of students, led by doctoral candidate Louis Tse, M.S. ’14, co-founded Bruin Shelter – only the second student-run shelter of its kind in the nation. Located in Santa Monica, Bruin Shelter welcomes UCLA and Santa Monica College students age 18-24 at any degree level. With a team of student director all-stars, he has created Bruin Shelter which offers beds to residents for the entire three months of a UCLA quarter in order to provide as much stability as possible. The Bruin Shelter team have developed their intake process with guidance from UCLA and other experts so they succeed in helping the most vulnerable students based on holistic criteria. Tse explains: “We understand young adults experience homelessness for a variety of difficult circumstances, whether it is domestic abuse, aging out of foster care, being LGBT in an unsupportive family or something else.”
Tse, who was once living out of his car in order to allocate resources towards Bruin Shelter, will be graduating soon and leaving campus. In preparation for this, he intentionally developed Bruin Shelter to be a “unique platform that will train and cultivate UCLA students to be the next generation of philanthropists, and cement UCLA as a trailblazer in tackling youth homelessness.”
We sat down with Tse (LT) and Ria Mukherjee (RM), a third-year undergraduate student and Bruin Shelter Resource Advocacy Co-Director, to ask some questions about Bruin Shelter and college student homelessness.
How did you become interested in the issue of homelessness among college students?
LT: I think it is something that hits close to home for me personally because I know fellow college students whose environments are weighing them down. They are ambitious and they are here at UCLA, but adolescence is hard for everyone. So observing them and seeing what they have to go through, it is particularly salient for me because it could easily be me.
How did you decide to have Bruin Shelter be a separate entity from UCLA?
LT: Logistically speaking, it makes most sense to be separate [from UCLA] and we were suggested to spin-off as a 501(c)(3) by vice chancellors and deans because of liability. We have gotten overwhelming support from UCLA administrators and they suggested being a separate entity to us because liability with UCLA is a lot of red tape… We would love to have the resources that UCLA has, but we get to enjoy the autonomy and freedom that comes along with being separate.
Are UCLA students the only students that are eligible to live in Bruin Shelter? If not, what other colleges are eligible?
RM: We are focusing on college students. We don’t have an exact policy written out for who we allow, but we are looking outside of UCLA. We are focused on students in the general Westside area. However, UCLA students are the ones who have the strongest connection to the program.
LT: We have officially partnered with UCLA of course, but also SMC. And we are connecting with other colleges.
RM: UCLA has been a huge asset. We get most of our volunteers trained through UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services, and they address homelessness in their trainings –Bruin Shelter is closely connected to their program.
How do UCLA students qualify to live in Bruin Shelter?
LT: This is something we are very cognizant of. We want to take a lot of care and put thought into it: obviously financial need, the length of stay at Bruin Shelter, etc. If someone needs to stay for three weeks versus three months, we will accommodate them.
What is the length of stay that is provided?
LT: For our pilot season (starting Fall 2016) the length of stay is 90 days. Later, it will ideally be based on need.
Is age a factor in qualifying? Degree level? Transfer vs. freshman?
LT: Age is a hard and fast rule: 18-24. It is the definition of being a youth by the US government as a transitional age youth. To be considered a “youth” you must be 18-24, and obviously for the younger age range there are liability reasons.
RM: Degree level is something that would not disqualify someone from Bruin Shelter, it is more based on what the student needs. In regards to freshman versus transfer, we are not trying to direct it to a certain demographic because we just want to help people. So whenever we find people who need our help we will lend a hand - that is what Bruin Shelter is about.
What have you learned about homelessness through your experience?
LT: It’s an invisible sub-population. Honestly, young adults who are experiencing homelessness are very difficult to identify and their needs are different from chronic homeless adults. Their needs are generally more transient so they need help for a smaller period of time. And also, because they are going through adolescence, they are at a formative time in their life. So for a short period they need help because they are carrying some weight. It’s a make or break moment. And if things turn south it is a downward spiral and a hard trajectory to reverse. The variety of reasons why young adults experience homelessness is varied and not very well understood.
There are services for chronic homeless adults, homeless families and women who are going through domestic abuse – but there is a lack of resources for 18-24 year olds. To be specific, there are no youth shelters on the entire Westside of Los Angeles. If you are a homeless young adult on the Westside you have two choices: you can take a two-hour bus ride to a youth shelter in Hollywood or elect to stay on the streets. Most elect to stay on the streets because it is easier and that is where their friends are. So if we don’t do anything, we are passively allowing these young adults to become the next generation of chronically homeless adults.
How can alumni get involved specifically with Bruin Shelter?
LT: We need alumni to make this dream happen. One of the most impactful ways to give is through our account with the UCLA Foundation. Proceeds go directly to giving our residents the best chance of gaining stability and obtaining their degree, which is gravely important. For those who can't give directly, we are always seeking donations for items such as food and blankets. For those who are interested in getting more involved and joining our team, we are also looking to create an Alumni Board of Directors. We do feel a kinship with UCLA and helping fellow Bruins.
RM: The UCLA alumni network is so big that if we could find any resources that could help the students after they graduate, that would be really helpful. If there are any particular positions or mentoring available through alumni, that would be helpful.
For more info on this topic, visit www.BruinShelter.com.
Bruin Shelter Team:
Louis Tse, M.S. ’14, Co-founder and Co-president
Bruin Shelter Student Directors
Ria Mukherjee, 3rd year, Resource Advocacy Co-Director
Imesh Samarakoon, 3rd year, Internal Vice President
Melissa Pagela, 3rd year, Administrative Director
Full Bruin Shelter Team