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For students struggling with or at risk of homelessness, Sac State offers a safety net

An on-campus residence hall has been used to house students facing homelessness as part of the Student Emergency Housing Program. The program is one of many resources Sac State offers students struggling with Sacramento's expensive housing market. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep)

Ryan McMurray, a Sacramento State graduate Sociology student, lived with relatives until they sold their house and left California.

His low credit rating prevented him from renting an apartment, and student loan debt made him ineligible for federal financial aid. For seven months, he slept in his car or bunked a night or two at a time with friends.

Now, with help from Sac State’s CARES Office, McMurray no longer is  homeless. He rents a reasonably priced apartment near campus through the University’s Rapid Rehousing Program, and can focus on his studies without worrying about where he’ll sleep next.

The program is just one aspect of the University’s safety net for students who are homeless or in danger of being on the streets.

“Rent in Sacramento is still going up, and so many students are struggling to afford housing,” said Danielle Muñoz, CARES Office case manager. “I think there will be a mini housing crisis as everyone comes back to campus for the fall semester.

“All homeless students should come talk to us. There are services, and as we discuss resources more and more, I feel that it will reduce some of the stigma around asking for help. We can serve even the most chaotic and enduring circumstances, as well as one-time needs.”

Sacramento is one of the state’s most expensive rental markets. The median monthly rate for a one-bedroom apartment is approximately $1,250, and $1,640 for two bedrooms.

The city’s year-over-year rent growth currently leads both the national and state average, making it difficult to afford for students who are on their own or relying on help from low-income relatives.

More than half of Sac State students depend on federal Pell grants to pay for their education.

“When students return to campus, they may not be able to afford rent alone and will need roommates,” Muñoz said. “Herky’s Roommate Finder is a good way to do that. It’s a program that can help everyone.”

The app, named for the Hornet mascot, is exclusively for Sacramento State students who are looking for a roommate or for a room to rent.

“The nice thing is that the posts go only to Sac State students, so it eliminates a lot of the fear of searching on Craigslist,” Muñoz said. “It helps students find each other.”

Students who suffered a financial loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic may benefit from the $17.8 million in federal aid Sacramento State received in 2020.

The University’s allocation from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) was authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security (CARES) Act and supports students who were laid off from work or face eviction because they’re unable to pay rent.

More than 1,400 students were approved for HEERF funding over the last year, with $1.5 million in supplemental grants awarded.

Students who are living on the streets or have an unexpected housing loss could be eligible for Sac State’s emergency housing program, which allows them to live in a campus residence hall for up to 30 days. The CARES Office placed 29 students in such housing during the 2020-21 academic year.

Another 17 students, including McMurray, are off the streets and living in safe, affordable housing, thanks to the Rapid Rehousing Program (RRH).

“I am very grateful for a stable situation,” McMurray said. “It has allowed me to focus on school without having external worries, which can be pretty distracting at times.”

McMurray expects to graduate in Spring 2022 and plans to apply for Sac State’s Doctorate in Educational Leadership program.

RRH, a state-funded partnership between Sac State, the CSU, and local social-service agencies, gets students into housing that is guaranteed for nine months – the length of one academic year – and gives them the tools to move on to regular community housing.

Another option is a new Sac State pilot program that offers a subsidy to students at risk for eviction because they owe back rent. They can receive up to $450 a month for three months.

The CARES Office refers students who are working but barely able to cover their rent, or who skip meals to pay for their housing, to Sac State’s Financial Wellness office, which offers free, confidential consultations on money management.

“If students are worried about housing or food coming into school, it’s hard to focus on what’s in front of them academically,” Muñoz said. “But if they prepare and are willing to use the resources available to them, they will have a chance for a smooth first day of school, because that sets the tone for the entire semester.”

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About Dixie Reid

Dixie Reid has been a writer for Sac State since 2012 after decades as a newspaper reporter. A Texas native with the accent to prove it, Dixie is crazy about “dear friends, big dogs, good books, great food, day trips, baking cookies, California sunshine (and fog), and kind people.”

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