A Santa Monica based program that began to house homeless students at UCLA is expanding into a statewide program providing shelter at multiple campuses including USC, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz with UC San Diego also considering their own campus shelter.

The volunteer-run Students 4 Students provides housing and support services. The shelters offer a safe place to live, meals and a sense of community. The students also receive a case manager who will help them figure out a savings plan, find employment, find the kind of permanent accommodation that would be suitable for them and also a transition fund to help students who are transitioning out of the shelter into permanent housing with first month’s rent and things like that. The program works to help students find their permanent housing within a month or two, but they are allowed to stay up to a full academic year.

The program began when two local students were looking for ways to help.

Back in 2014, three former UCLA PhD students: Lauren Dy, Luke Shaw, and Louis Tse noticed their peers were oftentimes sleeping in their cars or at libraries and figured something must be done.

They were inspired by a project at Harvard, where student volunteers opened a homeless shelter and while that program wasn’t specific to homeless students, they took that model and customized it to suit their needs.

The students eventually came to Mt. Olive and told Rev. Eric C. Shafer they’d been turned down by many other churches and synagogues. They said Rev. Shafer was the 51st person approached to help and the church said yes.

Shafer said Mt. Olive is committed to be the “church for the whole community” and as the place of worship had the space to serve, it did so.

That is when Bruin Shelter opened its doors in 2016. It was the first shelter for homeless college students in the United States.

However, the program was almost shut down just after beginning due to zoning problems and complaints from neighbors. The Church was eventually rezoned to allow people to stay overnight on the property. Sprinklers in the dorm room and a shower in the bathroom had to also be placed before the space could house students.

Once that was complete, the Church received strong support from the City Council and the County Supervisors. They also had help from an “angel” as Rev. Shafer described Michael Folonis who provided $150,000 in architectural services for free.

“Students 4 Students is an early intervention, so it is creating an opportunity where a student might otherwise all get into homelessness and fall out of education and fall out of schooling and become, you know, the candidate for chronic homelessness,” Shannan VerGow Executive Director, Students 4 Students said. “So it’s an intervention that really shores up these young people from falling into chronic homelessness.”

The four shelters operate under the fiscal management of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. However, they are funded through philanthropic grants and donations secured by student volunteers.

Students 4 Students had a very difficult time staying open last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had to close the Bruin shelter for the last season. We were unable to reopen in the fall of 2020 so we instead had virtual case management where we were helping students find resources and find them alternative housing,” VerGow said. “UCLA health department and health service just did not feel comfortable allowing us to open, even with limited capacity because the COVID was such a raging fire at that point. Trojans Center, which had opened in the fall of 2019, they were able to stay open the entire duration at a slightly smaller capacity so instead of eight students we would have four at a time.”

UCLA will reopen on Sept. 27 pending approval from UCLA Health, but the shelter will only be open at half capacity which means five students will be housed. A decision is expected within 1-2 weeks, but all signs indicate the shelter will open on the scheduled date. Trojan Shelter will open with four students instead of eight.

“UC Davis will be opening in October, and we’re currently working with UC Santa Cruz to help them get Slug Shelter open, which most likely is going to be in the next year,” VerGow said “And I’ve already heard that we have interest from UC San Diego so we’re really spreading the word right now.”

Students who need shelter can go online and submit applications. Then they’re interviewed by the student volunteers and the case managers, a lot of it is first come first serve. As the applications are received, they’re put into the queue and they’re interviewed and accepted, or if they aren’t a great fit, then we help them find another resource.

For more information on donating or getting a bed visit, https://www.s4sla.org/get-a-bed.

daniel@smdp.com