Housing Homeless College Students: Pastor Eric and the Students 4 Students shelter

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Santa Monica is facing a homelessness crisis. It’s an obvious issue, one you can’t help but be confronted with when you drive down many of Santa Monica’s streets. It’s prompted us, as a city, to make solving this crisis a priority.

But in tackling this issue, it’s important to remember that sometimes homelessness isn’t so obvious, and sometimes it affects populations you might not expect. Case in point: did you know one out of every ten college students reports being homeless? It’s a shocking statistic, one that was brought to Pastor Eric’s attention by a UCLA student.

Getting to Yes

Louis was a UCLA engineering student, working toward his Ph.D. when he realized that student homelessness was a massive under-the-radar problem. It bothered him. A lot. He felt compelled to do something about it and he set his mind to opening a shelter for housing homeless college students. He figured there might be a church, synagogue, or mosque nearby that might be interested in helping, so he set out to meet with congregation leaders.

Each time he presented the idea, he was met with sympathetic ears… but the answer was always a disappointing, “no.”

Louis pushed on, setting up a meeting with Pastor Eric, the gregarious pastor of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. By this time, he’d already met with the leaders of 50 other west LA and Santa Monica religious congregations. Eric was the 51st congregation leader he met with... And the one who finally said ‘yes’.

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Getting to ‘Yes’... Again and Again

Mt. Olive Lutheran Church has been around for some 76 years, standing at the corner of Ocean Park and 14th Street. It’s a bustling place. Besides hosting Sunday services, it’s also home to monthly jazz concerts, 12-Step groups, Sunset Park Association meetings, a preschool, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Opera, and the offices for the Westside Coalition For Hunger And Homelessness, and now — the Students 4 Students shelter, also known as the “Bruin Shelter”.

For Pastor Eric, saying ‘yes’ to the shelter was a no-brainer. After all, the church still had extra space… why wouldn’t they put it toward something good? Helping out felt like the natural thing to do.

And that leap of faith paid off. The shelter has received tremendous support from nearly every corner. Generous members of the community, like architect Michael Folonis, have even donated time and services to bringing the shelter up to code. As Pastor Eric says, “There hasn’t been one person in the neighborhood that I’ve encountered who hasn’t been supportive of the shelter.”

Students 4 Students

At any given time, ten students sleep at the Students 4 Students shelter every night, along with two Resident Assistants. Most of these students attend UCLA or Santa Monica College and are coming from off the streets or living in their cars. They stay for at least a month, with many of them staying the whole semester.

Run by 80 UCLA student volunteers, the shelter is a stunning display of collaboration. The volunteers prepare breakfast and evening meals, and an outside caterer donates lunches. Even the City of Santa Monica gets in on the collaboration by providing internet for the students. It all adds up to a safe space where students can get rest and meals while they’re pursuing their academic careers.

Paying It Forward

Pastor Eric’s face lights up when he mentions that there are already students who have “graduated” from the shelter that are coming back in the fall to volunteer. He looks forward to seeing how other students will give back to the community in the future.

Pastor Eric also hopes that other houses of worship and community organizations will be encouraged to open up their space to house students. If you’re interested in talking about setting up a shelter, contact them — they’d love to talk to you about it. You can also lend a hand by donating or volunteering to help the existing shelter.

Pastor Eric says he also hopes this compassion for homeless college students can eventually translate to greater compassion for the homeless population at large, a group of people that’s not always as readily welcomed as the college students are.

If you’re interested in knowing how Santa Monica is addressing the homelessness crisis, visit weare.santamonica.gov. While you’re there, be sure to download the Homelessness Toolkit — a guide that contains practical advice on what to say, what to do, and what resources exist across the community to support people experiencing homelessness across Santa Monica.