Long Beach City College students living out of their cars can now park overnight in one of the college’s parking structures after the college announced a “safe parking” pilot program that started this month.

The Safe Parking Program will provide students with access to showers, restrooms, electricity and wireless internet connection seven nights a week. College officials said the program could help students to focus on their coursework without having to worry about their safety or the police being called on them for sleeping in their vehicles.

For now, the program is only in effect at the college’s Pacific Coast Campus in Central Long Beach and space will be limited to 15 students during the pilot period, a college spokesperson said. Stacey Toda, a communications director for the college, said that the decision to put the program at the PCC campus was made with proximity to showers, access to wifi, and ADA accessibility in mind.

In order to qualify for the program, the student experiencing homelessness must be currently enrolled and cannot have a spouse, partner or children with them in the vehicle but documented emotional support and service animals will be accepted, according to a release from the college.

The structure will be open for overnight parking from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily, and showers will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., according to the college.

“The unfortunate truth is that LBCC has close to 70 students sleeping in their cars each night—quite possibly more,” Long Beach Community College District Interim Superintendent-President Mike Muñoz said in a statement.

“If we can help to keep our students safe so they can better focus on their student responsibilities, this program is absolutely worth pursuing. Our goal at LBCC is always to remove barriers that get in the way of our students’ success.”

The college said that students who use the parking structure will also get opportunities to have their cases managed by LBCC staff who will try to connect them to long-term housing options.

Andy Kerr, a longtime homeless services advocate and member of the county’s oversight advisory board that reviews expenditures of Measure H funding, said that connecting people to services is important and a program like the college’s pilot program provides a good gateway to do that. Kerr said that safe parking programs are better than the alternatives that people experiencing homelessness face, noting that while a car is not an ideal form of shelter, it is better than being exposed to the elements.

“It’s really creative on their part,” Kerr said of the college’s pilot program. “It’s unfortunate that there is a need for that because of the housing affordability issue and so many young people struggling with food and housing security and the inability to pay their rents.”

A survey of nearly 50,000 students conducted by the chancellor of the California Community Colleges last year found that 57% of respondents had basic needs insecurity, with students of color reporting at higher rates than White students.

The survey showed that 40% of students surveyed were food insecure while 37% were facing housing insecurity. Eighteen percent of students reported being homeless.

Last year, a college spokesperson estimated that about 10% of LBCC students were homeless, something that they said contributed to a dip in enrollment. Toda said that the college knows of 199 students who are experiencing homelessness but can only track the students who have reached out or spoken to a staff or faculty member.

The college has worked to help struggling students in recent years, creating the Viking Vault, a food pantry that provides unlimited free groceries to enrolled students, as well as working to connect homeless students to housing.

California community colleges received $100 million to help homeless and food insecure students as part of the last statewide budget signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom this year.

The money was meant to fund programs like the Viking Vault but also to help colleges offer on and off-campus housing resources.

The Long Beach safe parking program is believed to be the first in the region but it could have been the norm if a statewide bill that would have required all community colleges to offer their parking lots for overnight parking hadn’t been pulled from consideration in 2019. Other colleges in the area have taken steps to help their homeless student populations.

Cerritos College opened the state’s first housing exclusively set aside for students experiencing homelessness last year. The $4 million Village at Cerritos College has the capacity to house 28 students.

[Editors note: This story has been updated with additional information from the college about the program.]

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.