Even before the pandemic, Tracey Spann said, her housing situation was precarious. She often had to choose between paying rent on her apartment or a car payment to get to work and school. At one point, without a car of her own, she slept in a rental car.
Later, her job as a professor’s assistant at Pierce College disappeared in the pandemic, and as her roommates’ finances took similar hits, everyone else scattered to the security of their own safety nets — their parents’ homes, or other family and friends.
Spann, whose parents are deceased, didn’t have the same support system.
As a new transfer student from Pierce College, Spann hadn’t even officially started at CSUN when COVID-19 hit — but the university stepped in to help.
As a public university, CSUN has always welcomed and lifted up students like Spann. Since its earliest days, CSUN leaders have known many of their students struggle with homelessness, food insecurity, financial precariousness — but recent soaring rents have exacerbated these issues. Then came COVID and the economic crisis.
CSUN leaders this year knew they had to hold out a modest but secure safety net for students like Spann when state and local health officials ordered college dorms closed, to help hold back the spread of the deadly virus. The university began accepting applications this summer to stay on campus in Student Housing. The criteria for being allowed in the dorms was strict but simple: The dorms were reserved for students who otherwise wouldn’t have their own bed.
CSUN officials had hoped to open more rooms, but Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines quashed those plans. Approximately 250 students successfully applied to live on campus, plus an additional 40 students who work at the university. Students who were denied could appeal the decision — about half of the students who appealed were allowed to stay, said Melissa Giles, CSUN Residential Life associate director.
“We heard some pretty profound stories of students in need,” said Giles, noting that university administrators shared the disappointment of students who weren’t able to live on campus as planned. “We were happy that we could at least house students that are most in need.”
The dorms were a safe alternative for students with no comfortable options in one of America’s most expensive cities. Some of the students in the dorms had aged out of the foster-care system. Some had been living in crowded homes with multiple generations of family members. Some had been couch-surfing with relatives or friends, a dicey living arrangement that precludes quarantining if someone in the residence gets sick.
Students living on campus can go about their business as they normally would, but they must wear masks outside, and no visitors are allowed. The safety protocols in the dorms are strict; students must fill out a health questionnaire every day to make sure university leaders have an early lead on any potential outbreaks. (There have been none so far.)
“It’s stressful, but it’s worth it,” said Spann, a health administration major.
The students approved to stay now reside in the University Park housing, which typically holds 3,200 students. Of the 20 buildings in University Park, only nine are in use. CSUN Athletics has one dedicated dorm. One building is set aside as a potential isolation area for any students who contract COVID-19 or are exposed.
Suites and apartments in University Park would normally be shared by four students — in a more “typical” school year, each suite would consist of two two-person bedrooms, with one bathroom in each suite and apartment. Now, there is just a single student per suite or apartment, and for safety reasons, students are not sharing bathrooms.
The University Village family housing, at the far north end of CSUN’s campus, has been largely unaffected by the pandemic. Each apartment is a single self-contained unit (no shared bathrooms or hallways) with an exterior entrance. The approximately 90 families who live in those units typically stay put over breaks; they don’t move in and out like students in the regular dorms.
Though much of campus remains closed, there are a few dining and shopping options available on campus. The Geronimo’s dining facility — a normally bustling cafeteria — is now open for limited hours, with a Matador Mercado convenience store nearby. Students living on campus in units without kitchens are required to purchase a meal plan.
For the students who qualified to live on campus, most of their housing and meal plan costs are covered by financial aid and grants, Giles said. When they arrived, students were given masks, thermometers and other safety supplies.
Giles said the university frequently reaches out to students to find out how they’re doing, and if their experience can be improved.
“We typically ask for a lot of feedback, but more so now because we want to make sure they’re safe and healthy and happy as can be,” Giles said. “We want to give them a nice experience.”
The university also has tried to offer engagement activities to students living on campus. Most of the activities have been via Zoom — including a session on making your own lava lamp — but for the New Student Convocation event (an annual ceremony to welcome freshmen and transfer students to the CSUN community), CSUN Residential Life (or the Office of Student Involvement and Development?) set up an outdoor big screen to stream the virtual convocation, with food provided. Students were spaced 6 feet apart and wore masks.
“They’re trying, you know? They’re not just saying, ‘Well, we can’t meet in person, so we’re not going to do anything,’” said Paige Jones, a third-year broadcast journalism major. “They’re still trying to do something.”
Jones applied to stay in the dorms after originally planning to serve as a resident advisor. Studying has been hard in this new world, but she said being able to stay on campus relieved her of at least one major worry.
“I really didn’t have anywhere to stay,” she said.