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Airbnb, San Jose State University Partner To House Homeless Students

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) -- The City of San Jose has announced a partnership with Airbnb, the Bill Wilson Center and San Jose State University to temporarily house students who are homeless or those with unstable housing situations.

San Jose is the first city in the country to implement such a pilot program.

"We don't know if it's going to work, that's part of the nature of failing forward in Silicon Valley. We're going to try it, we're going to test it out. And if we find out there are hiccups, we're going to pivot and tweak it," said Mayor Sam Liccardo.

Students applying for the short-term housing will do so through the nonprofit Bill Wilson Center, which already serves homeless youth and young people. The center will assign each student a case worker who can then reserve and pay for the rooms for the student to stay for up to several weeks, while the student works to secure more stable, longer-term housing.

The program is funded by a $250,000 state grant and Airbnb will refund all fees back to the center. The host will receive payment for housing the student, but also has the option to discount the rate or rent the room free of charge.

In October 2018, San Jose was the first to pilot Airbnb's "Open Homes" program, where hosts allowed victims of natural disasters to stay for free. The program was later scaled up and rolled out nationwide.

Chris Lehane, senior vice president of public policy for Airbnb, says the company's algorithm will help determine willing hosts and find locations that are convenient for students. Lehane believes the program will draw in homeowners who have never thought about hosting until now.

"Given the data that we have seen, survey information that we have seen, when there's an incredible amount of empathy, and interest in the student homelessness issue, specifically, in addition to our regular hosts engaging in this, you'll get another cohort of folks who want to participate because they want to find a way to help those students," said Lehane.

San Jose State has seen a sharp uptick in its homeless population in recent years. A 2018 CSU survey found 13% of SJSU's population, roughly 4,000 students, had experienced some form of homelessness. The findings were met with marches and demonstrations, with protesters demanding the university do more to address the crisis, like provide temporary housing and emergency cash stipends to students.

Patrick Day, SJSU vice president of student affairs, said the university is "continuing to have those conversations" with the student activists, but the Airbnb program provides yet another option.

"We're on the leading edge of this challenge in our country. We've got to be optimistic, we've got to find a multitude of solutions," said Day.

At the Spartan Food Pantry, where students come to receive fresh groceries and canned goods for free, graduate student Nicole Khattar hoped students don't abuse the program.

"I'm glad it's out there as a resource, I just hope that it's constructed and scaffolded in a way that really helps puts students on their feet, and not actually just expect them to always have something that's going to be free," said Khattar.

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