They say the numbers don’t lie.
But when you don’t have access to them in the first place, it can be equally difficult to discern the truth.
UCLA has been grappling with this issue as it tries to understand the population of students experiencing homelessness – a substantial challenge considering the university does not collect its own data on this demographic of students.
In other words, the struggle to act is largely self-inflicted.
The University of California collects data on the population of students experiencing homelessness UC-wide – data that allows for a better understanding of these students and the effective creation of programs to aid them.
But for the UC perched in the middle of LA – where rates of people experiencing homelessness are some of the worst in the nation – administrators have considered increased data collection to be a side note.
UCLA has an opportunity to more fully understand its student community by collecting data on students experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness. While collecting that data may seem unactionable, it would lay a foundation for more informed research, program development and preventative outreach. UCLA has a long way to go before it begins to make meaningful changes, but this option would allow for greater understanding of the homeless demographic at UCLA, and how to proceed from there.
During the Daily Bruin Editorial Board’s meeting with Chancellor Gene Block and Vice Chancellors Michael Beck, Monroe Gorden Jr., Rhea Turteltaub and Jerry Kang, Vice Chancellor Gorden said the university’s reason for not collecting this data lies in privacy concerns.
“The point is trying to understand specific numbers here at UCLA while also being very sensitive to the fact that we are talking about insecurity of individuals and people, and that those people may not want to have their specific information shared,” Gorden said.
Of course, privacy is a right of students experiencing homelessness, just as much as anyone else’s. But to neglect data collection on the basis of privacy is not only misguided – it’s inaccurate. Surveys conducted by the UC and the California State University system have maintained privacy and framed questions using predetermined federal scales of housing insecurity in order not to intimidate or deter students experiencing homelessness. And it seems improbable that a leading research university can’t figure out how to design an anonymous survey for its own students.
By the administrators’ own admission, understanding this demographic is essential to helping them.
During a North Westwood Neighborhood Council meeting, Beck said the university had not yet approached solutions to homelessness because administrators were still attempting to understand how many students experienced it.
At the quarterly meeting with the Daily Bruin Editorial Board, Beck echoed that statement.
“It’s been very difficult for us to really understand what the size of the population is and so we’ve been dealing with it and managing it based on the students that come and seek assistance,” Beck said. “We do our best to find immediate as well as long-term solutions.”
UCLA might have good intentions, but administrators are sending two different messages – and the discrepancy likely stems from an unwillingness to publish bad PR, even if it means helping students experiencing homelessness. Clearly, students struggle with housing insecurity, and the results of a survey would reflect that. But that’s not the fault of the university – rather, it’s a symptom of inaccessible housing and horrendously high rent rates.
What is the fault of the university, however, is its continued unwillingness to help and understand the students vulnerable to these systemic issues.
For UCLA, these criticisms aren’t new. Both the Undergraduate Students Association Council and the NWWNC has called upon UCLA to implement safe parking spots that students can rest in if unable to commute or find more permanent shelter. Rise, a student advocacy group for college affordability, recently circulated a petition urging Block to invest $1 million in a shelter for students experiencing homelessness.
Clearly these steps are too monumental for UCLA to commit to now, but an anonymous survey is the least they could do – and it would provide a foundation for future research and support.
Resources already exist – UCLA could work with the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey to incorporate questions about housing security specifically pertaining to its campus. And although the federal definition of homeless youths has conflicting age ranges, it will at least be a decent start toward solving a monumental issue.
The UCUES already measures students’ food insecurity anonymously, which can help inform services offered by resources like the Community Programs Office food closet and meal vouchers. Other essential data are factored into the survey like residency, race and ethnicity, first generation status and discipline – all essential to understanding the composition of UCLA’s student body and how to support them, especially when those figures can be broken down for each UC.
But when housing status is left off the table altogether, UCLA is left with little idea of how many students need help or how to even begin.
The lack of current data collection shouldn’t prevent UCLA from creating resources in the meantime. Administrators seem stuck in a limbo between unwillingness to collect data and unwillingness to create resources without that data. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive – and they would only complement one another in the university’s long-term work to combat student homelessness.
Data collection is good. Tangible results are great. The two of them working in tandem are essential to solving UCLA’s housing insecurity problem.
Maybe numbers don’t lie. But if administrators can’t be bothered to do the math, then the issue of student homelessness will remain just that: numbers.