The California State University (CSU) is the largest four-year public university in the country, and is also the most ethnically and economically diverse, with students of color making up nearly three-quarters of its population and 50% of undergraduate students receiving Pell Grant support. Since 2018, the CSU’s Basic Needs Initiative has worked to address the needs of students experiencing food insecurity and homelessness. COVID-19 has exacerbated the hardships faced by these students, creating the need for extra supports that will allow them to continue on their paths to college graduation and a more secure future.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk with Dr. Rashida Crutchfield, associate professor of social work at CSU Long Beach, whose research has been instrumental in creating CSU’s response to basic needs insecurity, both before and during the pandemic. She describes what she has learned about these students’ experiences, as well as the impact of COVID-19, the college-based supports that have been most effective, and her hopes for increased attention to the issue of students’ basic needs insecurity in the future—at the federal, state, and university level. 

 

Could you walk us through how your career led you to work on basic needs?

I have been a practicing social worker for a very long time, primarily focused in advocacy and community organizing. My last full-time work as a social worker was at Covenant House California, where I was doing a lot of community engagement in support of our residents, who were 18–24-year-olds experiencing homelessness. I was really curious about the experiences some of them were having in higher education. Many of them were going to school—primarily at community colleges, but some were going to CSUs and UCs. We had one resident who was trying to get into a community college nearby and was told by a financial aid officer that she needed to get her parents’ tax information for her financial aid. She said, “Well, I’m homeless. And I don’t have contact with my parents.” The financial aid officer obviously hadn’t heard about that before and told her, “Well, you don’t look homeless. You’re probably just fighting with your parents. You probably need to go and talk to them and get their tax information.” She came back to the shelter and spoke with our resident nun, Sister Margaret Farrell, who became a feisty Irish woman and went up to that community college and straightened some things out.

I was curious about how other students experiencing homelessness were navigating these issues without this feisty Irish nun on their side. And what I found was that there was no research regarding this issue at that point—this would have been in 2007. Lots of people had done really strong advocacy for students who are part of foster care, but not for students who were homeless but not a part of those systems. And so began my interest in homelessness, and then that expanded to hunger as an issue in the CSU system.

 

How were you involved in the creation of CSU’s Basic Needs Initiative?

I was commissioned by then Chancellor Timothy White to get a better understanding of how our students with basic needs insecurity were navigating CSU. In 2015, I started that study for the CSU, looking at faculty, staff, and administrator perspectives of students’ basic needs insecurity, and then we expanded to students. I partnered with Dr. Jennifer McGuire (an associate professor in the department of social work at Humboldt State University), and we sent out a survey to all of our students in the CSU and did interviews and focus groups with students at 11 campuses. We produced this study of student basic needs in 2018 for the CSU system, and that work then grounded the CSU Basic Needs Initiative, which then really looked to harness the power of all 23 campuses in addressing the needs of our CSU students—over 480,000 students across the state of California. The initiative is led by Dr. Lea Jarnagin and Henoc Preciado, who really have provided incredible leadership for all of us in the CSU.

 

How does the basic needs program work, uniting all of the CSU campuses and giving them their own independence in administering local needs?

Our 23 campuses are all a part of the CSU, and each of us has our own dynamics—our own community geography and culture—so we really have to address the needs of our students at our individual campuses. But the chancellor’s office really brings us together in our focus and helps us in many ways—providing direction and fiscal support, helping to harness our advocacy at the state and federal level, as well as to collaborate with our California community colleges and our UC family. The CSU Basic Needs Initiative really has provided a focal point for us, but our campus initiatives are definitely driven by the needs of our local students.

 

Could you tell us more about what the initiative offers?

That’s an interesting question. I, for instance, am at California State University, Long Beach, and our Basic Needs program provides a case-management model. Students who are experiencing basic needs insecurity apply for our program through an application online, and one of our case managers gets back to them within 24 hours and explores with them what their needs are. On our campus, we have a rapid rehousing program, so if a student is experiencing homelessness, they will be assessed for that program and then referred to Jovenes, Inc., an organization addressing youth homelessness that includes case management to provide wraparound services to help that student gain ongoing support and placing them in subsidized, sustained housing. If a student is experiencing an emergency crisis, they might be linked to some of our emergency services, which might include an emergency grant, short-term emergency housing on campus, access to food on a short-term basis, or help with applying for CalFresh—or what people outside of California know as SNAP, colloquially thought of as food stamps. Those are many of the supports that we can provide on our campus.

Each of our campuses have a different kind of program, and the Basic Needs Initiative for the CSU links all those folks together. Some campuses are similar to ours—Sac State has a similar program. Humboldt has a program they call, “OhSNAP!” which has a really comprehensive food pantry, and Fresno State also has an amazing food pantry that looks more like a grocery store. But each campus has their own program, and then representatives from each campus meet every other month to share what we’re doing, our knowledge and skills. Sometimes we’re able to seek fiscal support, either from the chancellor’s office or in groups with private foundations.

We work together to share our knowledge and skills and love, because it’s hard work. Our students are really championing their own lives and really working hard in employment and with their education. We’re here to support them, and that work really is difficult. Our students are experiencing trauma as they’re experiencing food insecurity, homelessness, and housing insecurity, and then our staff are experiencing vicarious trauma as they’re supporting our students as best as they can. That family of the basic needs movement really is a community of folks who are dedicated to this work.

 

What impact has COVID-19 had on homelessness and food insecurity among college students? Obviously, the people who are already in precarious situations got hit the worst through all this. But if you want to highlight some of the things you’ve seen?

We have been talking a lot about the dramatic impact of COVID-19 for our students in the Basic Needs Initiative. Some of our students have been essential workers. A lot of our students are working in things like food services or other kinds of front-line work that puts them at greater risk for COVID. Their families are often still working, and so our students are also experiencing incredible losses in their homes as they’re still struggling.

On the other hand, many of our students lost their jobs. I’ve spoken to hundreds of students as a part of this research to understand what’s going on with basic needs, and many of our students were already working one, two, sometimes three jobs just to make ends meet. When they lost their jobs, the struggle was compounded and amplified—they lost this critical employment that was providing that fiscal support. Also, students of color are more likely to be basic-needs insecure, and we know that COVID-19 shone a light on the disparity that many of these students were already facing, in addition to the fact that they are already at higher risk for COVID.

CARES Act funds were really helpful, but we all know that we’re waiting for our federal government to really come through and continue to support unemployment and to provide funds. Often, when our students get these CARES Act funds, they are putting that right back into their tuition so that they can keep coming to school. Dr. McGuire and I conducted a study of basic needs insecurity during the COVID crisis. In July, we collected data and found that incidences of homelessness for students who were already seeking basic needs support on their campuses escalated. Students who were living check-to-check to provide their rent have really struggled. Some students who had support of their parents have been able to go back to their parents, but their whole household is then struggling. The impacts and the implications of COVID-19 for our students are widespread and diverse.

 

How has the basic needs initiative changed as a result of the pandemic? Are there things you added on or had to seek greater funding for?

All of our campuses have really had to pivot, moving quickly to try to support the health and well-being of our students, and a lot of our students were finding root in our campus as an anchor, going to our food pantries and also really supporting each other with social supports. A lot of campuses pivoted to a curbside food pantry model, so students can drive by and pick up support that way. We’ve also expanded emergency grant supports for our students, but there’s a lot more need. A lot of students received CARES Act funds with that initial disbursement, but those funds couldn’t go to undocumented students. For us at Long Beach, that meant we had to look to philanthropic giving for our undocumented students, to ensure that they were getting some financial support. But we can’t do it alone. Our community-based agencies are also responding, but there’s a lot more that is needed.

 

What do you think are the most important supports that can be offered for these students by higher education institutions and other organizations invested in equity and college success? In a perfect world, in a bigger picture, what are your dream points?

My dream points really are looking at the Biden administration right now as we think about, “How can we support meal programs for all students on campus?” We really want to look at financial aid and expanded support for students, particularly students who need it the most. We know that higher education is a driver of economic self-sufficiency, and so investment in public higher education has to come at the federal and state level. I’m looking at our students who are investing in their future by taking out subsidized and unsubsidized loans. And for students right now who are struggling to persist in higher ed, if they have to stop out of higher education for some reason, then they’re paying towards their education without that degree. We have to invest in supporting our students so that they can continue their education, and that has to look at tuition and it has to look at loan forgiveness in the future, in the very near future.

We still need to carry the ball forward in higher education. We definitely have to be clear about the efficacy of our programming and services. My work right now is to find funding to provide real data to show the outcomes of supports like our rapid rehousing program. What happens for a student when they’re stably housed? What happens for a student when we provide these services? I think a lot of us are fully aware that a student cannot learn if they have to think about where they’re going to sleep or if they haven’t eaten. We’re clear about that in the K–12 system—we know that they need to have lunch, and we know that they need to have a McKinney-Vento liaison that supports the family’s housing or supports the student if they’re experiencing homelessness. I think that efforts to evaluate those things in higher education—and also funding to staff those programs—are so critical.

 

What keeps you up at night?

What really keeps me up at night are these students who are making incredible choices right now about whether or not they can continue their education. I’m talking to students who are in their cars, driving to campus to get that wi-fi and then sleeping in their cars. That can’t be what our students live. We have this ideological narrative that students have to struggle in order to achieve higher education, which makes us feel warm and fuzzy when a student has moved from homelessness to a degree. But that can’t be the story of our students. And it is untenable to think that our students are not getting the food that they need or having a place to sleep at night and still trying to get a degree.

Our students deserve better. Our communities need our students to graduate. When our students get a degree, they give back. You know, more times than not, our CSU students are coming back into their communities and contributing their tax dollars and contributing their brilliance and their talents back into us. They are our legislators. They are our teachers. They are our engineers. They are our doctors. They are our social workers. We need them now more than ever. And that investment, that return on investment is what we need to recover our economy. It keeps me up at night that our students are hungry and are trying to learn.