When James de la Nueve got in a fight with his dad last summer and got kicked out of the house, he found himself living on the streets of Los Angeles.
He first tried living in his car, then sleeping in the laundry room of an apartment building where he was a security guard. Next, he tried napping in a college library or an unused classroom.
“Every day is a constant reminder, the world is just hammering at you: You don’t have a place to stay,” said James, 21, who is now studying civil engineering at Santa Monica College. “It’s like you’re in class, and it’s the only thing you’re thinking about. It’s hard to focus on the chalkboard.”
But in October, a new type of homeless shelter, the Bruin Shelter, opened specifically for college students — and it’s run by other college students. James was one of nine students to get a bed.
“Many young people don’t feel safe in traditional shelters, staying with adults,” said 27-year-old Louis Tse, executive director and co-founder of the Bruin Shelter. “Many have been verbally or physically abused, or robbed. The peer-to-peer model of young people helping young people really lowers that barrier for young people to come in the door.”
Tse was inspired to start the shelter while he was a graduate student at UCLA, studying mechanical engineering. He would see students sleeping in the library or student activity center, and it was clear they weren’t just napping on top of their math homework. He even met a young man living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row who told him he was enrolled in community college.
There are few resources for these students, Tse discovered. Existing emergency shelters offer a bed only for a couple of nights. So Tse set about opening the Bruin Shelter, which allows students to stay for six months and helps them find permanent housing.
“Losing sleep on a regular basis sets you up to fail a midterm, then a second midterm, then a class,” he said. “Then it slowly leads to painfully dropping out.”
Roughly 56,000 students indicate they’re homeless on U.S. financial aid forms. But researchers believe the numbers are much higher than that. In California, one in three community college students is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, according to a recent report.
“It’s a nationwide problem,” Tse said, “and we feel we’re doing our small part to inspire others to show that it’s possible to do something about it.”
The shelter is set up in the back of a Lutheran church in Santa Monica and is open to students from all colleges in the area. It opens at 7 p.m., when church meetings or AA gatherings wrap up in the main hall, and shelter volunteers start cooking and set up a table for dinner. Residents hang out on their beds — there are two windowless bunk rooms, one for men, one for women — doing their homework, or they watch TV in the lounge.
The shelter closes during the day, and residents have to leave by 7 a.m.
James is usually up and in the bathroom by 6:20 a.m. There’s no shower at the shelter, so he sometimes washes his hair in the sink. He dresses in pants from J. Crew, a shirt from the Gap, and finishes with toner and moisturizer.
It’s important to James to not look homeless. Like many homeless students, he wants to avoid the stigma. But it’s also a survival strategy. The shelter provides breakfast and dinner for residents. But James is on his own for lunch, and he often shoplifts chicken wraps or chopped fruit.
“Dressing well is the No. 1 reason I get away all the time,” he said, noting that he steals his clothes, too. “So when I walk into a store I won’t be noticed, because I look like everybody else.”
This is James’ second try at college. He started at a school on the East Coast three years ago but never finished his first semester because of behavior problems. He came home to Los Angeles, but then last summer, he got in that fight with his dad and was on the streets.
James has big dreams for his future. He shows me an aspirational resume he has drawn up that reflects where he hopes to be in 10 years. It shows him transferring out of Santa Monica College and graduating from Harvey Mudd College in 2019, and then finishing a master’s degree in architecture and urban design at Columbia in 2022.
He thinks he might change his name formally, too. James de la Nueve is already a new name for him, an attempt at a new beginning, he said. His resume of the future has this name at the top: Damien Scott Nuevhaus.
“New House,” he said. “You feel?”
James’ story is one of many from students living at the shelter. Some are former foster youth, some are undocumented and don’t qualify for financial aid, some are LGBTQ and are estranged from their families, Tse said.
The Bruin Shelter receives some donations from people in the L.A. area, and recently launched a crowdfunding campaign. Local businesses donated beds and mattresses. There are shelves in the TV lounge stacked with donated toothpaste, soap and shaving cream. But a lot of the funding comes from Tse himself.
Two years ago, when he committed to making the Bruin Shelter a reality, he moved into his car. He finished his Ph.D. in May and got a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but he is still sleeping in his Kia and putting the money that would go to rent into the shelter.
“It makes basic sense,” Tse said. “One person gives up their housing so that nine other people can have it.”