HHSA Newsroom

7 Lessons From Affordable Housing Advocate Chant'e Catt's Brownbag

Published December 18, 2018
Chante Sunset

Shasta College graduate and former Brave Faces advocate Chant’e Catt visited HHSA staff last month to discuss how she’s made national headlines fighting for the rights of homeless college students.

When she moved to Humboldt State University in August 2016 to pursue her bachelor’s degree, she and her family ended up camping for more than two months due to an affordable housing shortage.

After discovering hundreds of students were also homeless, she started a grassroots campus movement to address housing insecurity.

In Shasta County, nearly 60 percent of our residents live in unaffordable housing. There are many parallels to what’s happening in Humboldt County, so there is much to learn from Chante’s story. Here are some key lessons from her brownbag presentation.

1.       Many College Students, and Presumably Some in Shasta County, Are Paying Interest to Become Homeless

Chant’e said she received no advance warning from the university about the housing shortage. Even though she began searching for a place 18 months prior to starting school, she still ended up camping in state parks for nearly 13 weeks.

Between hotel bills, camping fees and takeout meals, she estimates her family spent $16,000 to stay afloat. She estimates it costs a family $100 to $150 a day to camp, and it’s estimated that nearly 10 percent of Humboldt State students are homeless in some way.

2.       Being Homeless Is Emotionally, Physically and Spiritually Devastating

For years, Chant’e had been working hard, and so it was especially disheartening to find herself homeless, especially with her young daughter Arianna, she said. At times when she was camping, they would be awakened in the middle of the night by violence among other campers.

They had to move their camp regularly, and the process of constantly packing and unpacking their stuff caused anxiety and distress, she said. She was also distraught that, without access to a kitchen, her family often had to eat fast food.  Though she was homeless due to no fault of her own, she struggled to fight feelings she was failing as a mother.

She said sharing honest student narratives like hers were key to reducing stigma.
(Below, watch a student video about Chante's experiences.)

3.       Grassroots Activism Can Lead to Change, But It’s Hard Work
After receiving those emails, Chant’e helped create a student club that later became a student-run non-profit called Student Housing Advocate Alliance. Because of their advocacy, Humboldt County higher education campuses created a 24-hour safe space for homeless students and two Off-Campus Housing Liaison positions. Chant’e was hired to be HSU’s off-campus housing liaison.

However, Chant’e estimated she spent more than 2,000 hours of her own time attending meetings, passing out flyers and even doing research and survey collection to compensate for the university’s lack of data.

4.       She Faced Institutional Resistance, But Also Found Supporters

Chant’e said a lot of faculty members were dismissive. They’d say they had couchsurfed in college or that students come here for “adventure”. After she was hired as a housing liaison, she gathered data and prepared reports to convince staff the issue was serious, even affecting retention rates.

However, staff at HSU that have also assisted her. One official helped her break down barriers, invited her to key meetings and connected her with important players.

As a result, HSU now has a three-year plan to create more housing for students.

Chant'e Catt Brownbag

5.       There Was No Need to Re-Invent the Wheel

By poring through research journals and studying best practices from other campuses that dealt with similar housing crises, Chant’e said a lot of solutions were clearly apparent. These included:

a.       Creating campus accommodations for homeless students such as a 24-hour study area, rest pods, lockers as well as laundry and shower facilities.

b.       Human-to-human contact to help with finding services and housing.

c.       Wraparound case management.

d.       The university opened a thrift store, the proceeds of which go to housing vouchers.

e.       Stigma and sensitivity trainings to reduce discriminative perceptions about unsheltered students, poverty and homelessness in general.

Another big project in the works:

a.       The Landlord and Tenant Educated Renters Program: Through this collaboration, tenants would have access to a deposit fund, and landlords who complete an education course would receive acknowledgement as a university-preferred renter.

6.       Working with Property Managers Is a Must

Because there’s a shortage of available units and the university does not base its enrollment on the availability of housing, competition is fierce. Without a fair housing department, property managers have little accountability, and low-income students are particularly vulnerable to unprofessional practices, Chant’e said.

 Some landlords will violate their tenants’ privacy or discriminate against minority or LGBTQ students.

There are not many legal services available to students. Thus, engaging landlords is a key component to Chant’e’s current work.

7.       We Need Real Solutions, Not Band-Aids

While progress has been made, there are still many challenges at HSU. There is little space to build new housing units. NIMBYism and zoning laws are often barriers to housing for students. Even when students get housing, even on campus, it is too expensive for their budgets.

The key, Chant’e said, is to continue bridging gaps and building networks. She said when people are resistant to her ideas, she asks them what changes they would make.

“The key is to keep showing up and speaking out,” she said. “We don’t point fingers. Let’s find common ground as a baseline and support each other.”

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