The 41-year-old homeless and formerly incarcerated student had just come down with COVID-19 and was looking for help when she learned about the Welcome Home City program aiding housing insecure students at San Diego City College. It changed her life.
“Almost as soon as I filled out an online form, I got a call right back,” said the student, Lina Becerra. “They called me every week after that, too, to see how I was doing, making sure I was doing okay. They set me up with a Zoom meeting, put me in touch with resources to help me out, helped me find a job, helped me find a place to stay, helped me with my first and last month’s rent. They got me back on my feet. Now I have a place to stay, I’m still in school, I’m working toward my associate degree, and they still keep in touch with me.”
Becerra is hardly alone. The Welcome Home City initiative launched in 2021 has not only helped hundreds of homeless and housing insecure students find permanent housing, but also connected them with academic counseling and social services, not to mention workshops on financial literacy and how to navigate leasing an apartment.
Welcome Home City is funded through the California Community Colleges’ College Homeless and Housing Insecure Pilot Program, an initiative aimed at bolstering rapid rehousing services at community colleges throughout the state. Fourteen colleges were awarded annual grants of up to $700,000 each. San Diego City College is receiving $600,000 annually for three years.
City College was planning to launch its program in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic got in the way, resulting in Welcome Home City not getting off the ground until January of 2021. Now into its third year of the three-year grant, City is hoping the California Community Colleges’ Chancellor’s Office will extend the program for an additional year to make up for the lost time.
The Welcome Home City team comprises a part-time grant coordinator, two part-time housing case managers, two part-time project assistants, one part-time academic counselor, and one full-time housing navigator. Students in dire straits can reach out to the Welcome Home City team through a City College web form, though many are referred by faculty or professional staff.
“We don’t turn anyone away as long as they are enrolled at City,” said case manager David Howard, who for much of the past decade has worked with individuals experiencing homelessness, including homeless military at Veterans Village of San Diego.
Project assistants are the first point of contact for students turning to Welcome Home City, which partners with PATH San Diego. Challenges can often be resolved with a referral to resources both on and off campus. More complex situations are sent to case managers and the housing navigator, who walk students through the process of getting stable housing, provide short-term financial assistance to help pay the rent if needed, assist in helping the unemployed find work, and help them understand the nuances of lease agreements. Case managers also focus on doing everything they can to make sure student are getting the academic services such as tutoring and the academic counseling necessary to succeed in school during a time of unimaginable stress.
More than 400 students have reached out since Welcome Home City was launched. Most concerns were resolved quickly through small cash allowances to pay the rent or, at minimum, linking students with needed resources. Approximately 90 complex cases have been resolved after they were referred to meetings with a case manager. In the first year of the program alone, 31 students went from being housing insecure to stably housed. As of May of 2022, one dozen students who were living on the street now have a home.
Said Welcome Home City grant manager Emily Saldine: “We’re seeing our students graduate. We’re seeing them get secure housing. We’re seeing them find jobs. We’re seeing students who were homeless now living in their own place. We’re seeing a program that is having an impact.”