These California college students live in RVs to afford the rising costs of education

California college students experiencing homelessness speak out

Nestled on the Northern California coast among forests of towering redwood trees is Cal Poly Humboldt, one of 23 campuses in the California State University system, the largest public university network in the U.S. 

The campus is home to a number of students whose struggle to afford both the increasing cost of a college education and California's high cost of housing has led to living in their vehicles. 

"I don't feel homeless, but I am legally homeless," said Brad Butterfield, a journalism student at Cal Poly Humboldt who told CBS News he is among dozens of students who live in an RV or other vehicle.

One in 10 students within the CSU system have experienced homelessness, according to a 2020 report from UCLA.

Butterfield and several other students parked on campus until school officials enforced the prohibition of overnight camping in November 2023.

"This is becoming a norm for students to be able to afford college," Butterfield said. "It's much cheaper, and it's the only way I'd be able to go to school. If it wasn't for this, I wouldn't be here."

In September, the CSU system voted to raise tuition, which will amount to a 34% rise over five years. For the 2024-2025 school year, annual tuition for in-state undergraduate students will be $6,084, which does not include expenses such as housing. 

Some of the Cal Poly Humboldt students who previously parked overnight on campus say they're now struggling to find off-campus parking for their RVs. In Arcata, California, where the university is located, there is a 72-hour parking limit on city streets.

"The only thing we are ever asking for is somewhere to park, so I have somewhere to sleep," said Maddy Montiel, a recent graduate of Cal Poly Humboldt with a degree in environmental science and management who lives in an RV she's affectionately named "Pearl." 

Some students at Cal Poly Humboldt live in RVs due to the cost of housing and education. CBS News

Montiel and Butterfield, who are dating, park their vehicles together for added security.

"What has become the most difficult thing is just finding a place to exist," Butterfield said, noting that numerous parking tickets "come with the territory of living in a vehicle."

Hours after Montiel and Butterfield relocated their RVs to curb space in front of an empty lot, a police officer again warned Montiel of the city's three-day parking limit.

"It gets pretty tiring, having to move all the time," Montiel said.

"Being told to leave, but not being told where to go or why you have to leave — it's just, 'We don't want you here' … when you are told that by the university and now by the city, too, I mean you can brush it off, but at the end of the day that sucks," Butterfield said.

Cal Poly Humboldt cited the "health and safety of the campus community" for their parking enforcement in a statement, saying that "university parking lots are not intended for overnight camping and are not equipped with the sanitation and other facilities that are necessary to support RVs or other vehicles overnight."

Cal Poly Humboldt biology student Carrie, who asked not to provide her last name, lives out of a 20-year-old school bus she refurbished.

"You have to worry about things like… how much power you have, running water, like, where you're going to shower," she said. "But really the biggest stressor has been, where am I going to be safe for the night?"

Carrie called the student housing situation a "humanitarian crisis" amid the rising cost of tuition. 

In an effort to provide some relief, two Democratic California legislators introduced AB 1818, a bill that would establish pilot programs at community colleges and schools within the CSU system to allow students who use vehicles as housing to park overnight on campuses with a valid parking permit.

"The status quo is not acceptable," said bill co-author Assemblymember Corey Jackson in a statement to CBS News. "Solving the homelessness crisis is a state priority, and our colleges and universities, as key state institutions, must actively contribute to solving it."

Jackson's colleague and bill co-author Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, told CBS News: "While this bill is not the solution to the housing crisis, it provides a crucial safety net for students facing housing insecurity, ensuring they are supported, not penalized, as they work towards stable housing."

The bill moves to California's Assembly Floor for a vote next week.

The students who spoke to CBS News said their choice to live in vehicles shows just how much they value getting an education. 

"I know some folks might say, 'Well, you know, you picked this lifestyle,'" Carrie said. "I think it shows that we're resilient and creative, and we want to be here because we've chosen to be here and this is how much we want to be here."


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