I recently came across this video and article about a homeless PhD student at UCLA. I found it interesting because I was homeless at UCLA too. This post is about my problems with the story, and my experience being homeless at UCLA. You should go watch that video and read the article first.
What is wrong with the story?
While Louis explicitly says he doesn't want people to feel sorry for him, a lot of it is about how sorry his life is. Which is concerning considering how privileged Louis really is compared to most homeless people. They (Louis or the authors) should emphasize this distinction. And the larger harder, more complicated issue is glossed over, why is Louis homeless? There is not criticism or critique of the financial systems that are driving up tuition. No one asks why this is happening. Why is UCLA increasing tuition, in the face of mass student unrest?
It silences the struggles of the majority of homeless people by omitting their stories. It also belittles their struggle by casting Louis' homelessness as a somewhat heroic fight for the American dream of going to college and getting a job. And then it deliberately avoids confronting changes to tuition policy that are driving people to such desperate measures.
Louis isn't like moste homeless people. Louis is educated, able to keep a job, not battling addiction, has no obvious mental health issues, a car, a family, etc. On top of that he must have access to support systems in the school to help him finance housing, like all students do. However he would incur more debt, which isn't something to take lightly.
Why was I homeless?
Louis and I were both in the same situation, be homeless, or incur more debt. We made the same decision. And for both of us it was probably the right thing to do.
I barely graduated high school, I never thought I'd go to college. But after working a full time job, with no benifits, at $8/hr I decided to try to look into it. I went to San Jacinto Community College for two years, taking all of my lower division classes, and had no debt going into the University of Texas at Austin. I graduated from UTexas with above a 3.5, a bachelors of science in math, and a bachelors of science in physics (I was a double major). I did this whith zero financial help from my single mother, or anyone else in my family. I worked really hard and still graduated with 38k in debt.
So I made it to grad school at UCLA. The social narrative for a physics PhD student is that you get paid a meager salary, but it is enough to pay rent and tuition. And you are pursuing you passion so you can put up with being broke. When I showed up at UCLA I wanted to live at the UCHA housing co-op. It was pretty much the only place I could afford to live a $555 a month (this is ridiculously cheap for the area). It was near campus so I didn't need a car. And it included food! And co-ops are cool! But UCHA didn't have space available. So I decided to just sleep in my hammock on campus or in my office until a space opened up there. This didn't happen for a whole quarter (3 months).
Telling people you are homeless
Louis said he doesn't tell people he's homeless. I can relate to that. At first I was just honest about it. This would always bring a torrent of questions, and a lot of concern for my well being, which was hard to deal with.
People would offer me a couch. I always felt obligated to turn it down because my homelessness was self imposed and indefinite. So I imagined the situation would be awkward for both my host and I when I would eventually wear their generosity thin, but have no where to go. I just wanted to avoid that. My only social connections were other first year graduate students and I didn't want to alienate myself by mooching off of them.
Eventually I just stopped telling people about it.
How to be homeless at UCLA
Some things Louis describes about his life which I had some questions about. He says he should parks where he does for the free WiFi, but there is free WiFi at UCLA. Why is he showering on the beach? I used the UCLA gym every day, they even had FREE towel service. Maybe the expensive parking near campus was too expensive.
He said he was preparing all his food in his car. I couldn't cook either but I found it was very cost effective to eat Chipotle every day, and split a bowl across lunch and dinner. At Chipotle you are allowed to ask for as many extra rice and beans as will fit in your bowl for free. When not chipotle out I'd have a protein shake, make pb&j, or eat fruit.
There are a lot of logistics you have to figure out to make it more bearable. For the first month or so I slept in a camping hammock at night on the trail between intramural fields and sunset Blvd. Eventually I bought an air mattress and would sleep in my cubicle after my office mates had left. But if they were working late, I'd just sleep outside. I was hiding this from my office mates, but they caught me a few times. I'm not sure how suspicious they were.
I kept all my possessions in my cubicle. I had arrived in LA from a bicycle tour up through Mexico, so I didn't have a lot of stuff.
When I slept outside I'd have to wake up at sunrise, so campus police would not find me, and so I would not scare people on their way to class. When I slept in my office I'd have to wake up before my office mates came in. So about 7am everyday. Then I'd go to the gym and shower. Then proceed like a mostly normal school day.
I'd do my laundry at a nearby laundromat. Or a friend would let me use theirs. I didn't have a car, so I'd ride my bicycle everywhere.
Since I was spending 95% percent of my time on campus, I figured I would be super productive with school work. But I wasn't. I think this whole situation stressed me out more than I realized. Which affected my grades. Otherwise I led a mostly normal life.
If you are homeless at a university, or considering it, reach out to me. I'm happy to tell my little story because it isn't a narrative I see discussed openly. And maybe the LA times story helps lessen the taboo.
At the end of they day, I'm glad I didn't add another $5000 to my debt for my adventure in grad school. I dropped out in my second quarter.