Mark Fiore/KQED

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

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.”

Two student volunteers stay overnight at the shelter while the residents sleep. One sleeps from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. while the other one studies. Then they trade off from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. (April Dembosky/KQED)

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.

Students sleeping at the Santa Monica College library. Some homeless students carry a blanket and pillow with them so they can catch naps where they can. (April Dembosky/KQED)

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.

Shelter residents and student volunteers sit and eat dinner together every night, “like a family,” Tse said. Menus include frozen pizza and chicken Caesar salad, or taco night. (April Dembosky/KQED)
The men’s bunk room at the Bruin Shelter. Local businesses donated Tempur-Pedic mattresses. (April Dembosky/KQED)

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.”

The shelter provides residents with a bagged breakfast in the morning. (April Dembosky/KQED)

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.

In the upstairs TV lounge of the Bruin Shelter, shelves of donated toiletries are available to residents. (April Dembosky/KQED)

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.”

  • Sharon McGriff Payne

    Outstanding report! Thank you to all the students and reporters who put this eye-opening report together. When I was in college many, many years ago, I was poor. I discovered Ramen noodles – which were then 15 cents a package. My rent was $50 a month for a tiny studio, but, at least I had a roof over my head. When I hear stories like this, I am saddened; everyone deserves a roof over their heads. I’m pulling for these three students – they each sound like they have what it takes to be successful. Thanks, again.

  • Mountain girl

    I had no idea that students were homeless. Here are young people trying to make a life for themselves in spite of what would seem to be insurmountable obstacles. What a wonderful altruistic young man

  • Diane Armstrong

    At last! a report about someone doing something about this ridiculous…because it shouldn’t exist…problem; thank you, Mr. Tsu!!! I am going to your crowd funding spot next. How about some sensible and able person who reads KQED’s other articles about homeless students following Mr. Tsu’s example? How did everyone get so self-centred and heartless?

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    ‘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 concerns me because should be get arrested for breaking the law, and gets jail time he will lose out on many benefits. Not to mention one can dress damn well by shopping at thrift stores where a nice shirt, pants etc can be had for 50 cents on many days. Many students at U C Berkeley and Stanford shop at thrift stores because its smart.

    As for fruit and vegetables connect with some vegan groups on campus who often have access to produce at meet ups etc and love to share.


April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.