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Student-run shelter opens doors to homeless students

Bruin Shelter will house nine UCLA and Santa Monica College students ages 18 to 24 for six months. Residents can receive temporary housing, food, career counseling and resources to help them find permanent housing. (Courtesy of Luke Shaw)

By David Yaghutiel and Ashley Lanuza

Oct. 27, 2016 8:53 p.m.

Volunteers and residents of a new shelter for homeless students spent their first night getting to know each other, having dinner and watching TV.

Bruin Shelter, one of the country’s first student-run homeless shelters for students, officially opened its doors last week. The shelter will house nine UCLA and Santa Monica College students ages 18 to 24 for six months, said Luke Shaw, Bruin Shelter co-president and co-founder.

Students were selected throughout the year based on perceived need and compatibility, he said.

Residents can receive temporary housing, food, career counseling and resources to help them find permanent housing, said Rebecca Sarvady, Bruin Shelter media director and a third-year English student. Sarvady is also a former Daily Bruin staffer.

Bruin Shelter executive director and UCLA alumnus Louis Tse came up with the idea in early 2015. Tse began living in his car to save money so that he could launch the shelter. He now works at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Tse and Shaw started the shelter to address homelessness among college students. There are approximately 58,000 homeless college students in the United States.

[Related: Students start Bruin Shelter for Westwood homeless population]

“There are different thoughts on what constitutes homelessness, and many students will stay with friends, couch-surf, etc.,” Sarvady said. “However, (housing) permanence is important.”

The Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica offered organizers space in their church to house the shelter in late 2015. The church wanted to create a home for these homeless students, Sarvady said.

In the past two years, the shelter received several grants and donations from UCLA, the Los Angeles Kings, the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission and other organizations.

All of the shelter’s student volunteers are UCLA students, Shaw said. But Santa Monica College also promoted the shelter and shared resident applications with its students.

Melissa Pagela, Bruin Shelter external vice president and fourth-year biology student, said the team has grown from having just two student volunteers to 50.

“(The residents) are dealing with everything we’re dealing with – stress, grades, classes, on top of being homeless,” said Gary Lirungan, Bruin Shelter volunteer and fourth-year physiological science student.

Residents typically start their day like regular college students – commuting to campus, eating meals and studying hard, Sarvady said. Around 7:30 p.m., residents start cooking dinner and have a meal together. After that, individuals may drift to sleep in Tempur-Pedic beds, read books or unwind by watching television and playing Wii in the loft area.

“We’re all students; we have the ability to study together,” said Lauren Dy, co-president of Bruin Shelter. “We can all have that common thread that rings us together.”

[Related: Student-run clinic gives homeless individuals access to free health care]

The shelter hit a roadblock in September when Santa Monica city officials said the shelter did not meet certain safety codes. However, the directors met with city officials last month and made adjustments to the shelter to comply with city codes.

For example, officials said the location of the shelter’s loft beds was a hazard, so organizers moved the beds and converted some of the top floor space into a lounge.

According to a statement from the Santa Monica City Council, officials are working with Rev. Eric Shafer, a Mt. Olive Lutheran Church pastor, and the Bruin Shelter to make the church a safe temporary housing solution for at-risk students.

“We’re all in this together; we’re all on the same side,” Shaw said.

Sarvady said they plan to expand the shelter’s resources and make daily operations run more smoothly. She added that she hopes they can make student homelessness more visible and that the shelter can serve as a blueprint for other schools looking to do similar work.

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David Yaghutiel
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