Exhausted and fast asleep in the backseat of her car following a long day of classes, Esther Cruz springs up after University Police Officer Juan Perez lights up her vehicle with his cruiser’s spotlight.
“He started asking questions–wanting to know why I was there and what I was doing,” she recalls.
That was in fall 2015, Cruz’s first semester on campus. Driving up from her home in San Diego to begin classes and hoping to secure campus housing, Cruz was instead placed on the waiting list and couldn’t afford the off-campus housing options offered to her. She decided to try living out of her car. She first parked on surface streets, but after an attempted break-in of her car, she felt safer on campus. Perez discovered her during her first night in a campus lot.
“So I told him my situation,” said Cruz. “After listening to me he asked if I wanted to park inside the gated [University Housing] complex. He told me ‘I’ll let you in tonight so you can park your car and at least rest a bit.’”
Officer Perez’s caring gesture would be just the first of ongoing interactions with University Police as Cruz continued her routine of going to classes day and night, washing up at the nearest McDonald’s restaurant, spending time between classes in the Loker Student Union, and sleeping in her car in campus lots. Officers Guillermo Espinoza and Scott Herrick would also lend helping hands.
Now two years later, Cruz has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications, and during the commencement ceremony earlier this month, she decorated her cap in thanks to several campus police officers.
“All the officers really mean the world to me. They are my angels, they were my protectors and my heroes, and they continue to be that, and more,” said Cruz. “I consider them my family. They have good hearts and they care about their community. They really love what they do.”
All the officers really mean the world to me. They are my angels, they were my protectors and my heroes. -Esther Cruz
According to a recent study, 1 in 10 students in the California State University system is homeless or experience food insecurities at some point during their college years. Cruz was both.
Unemployed that first semester, Cruz often didn’t have enough money to buy food. Espinoza would check in on Cruz during night patrols. He would bring her things to eat, such as sandwiches from Starbucks, and “always” two bottles of water.
“One winter night it was 40 degrees and my windshield was frozen, and I was only wearing a hoodie and jeans, and had one blanket,” said Cruz. “Officer Espinoza stopped by and asked how I was doing; if everything was okay. He looked at me, scanned my clothing and said ‘Hey, it’s cold right? Do you want some coffee?’ I said ‘Sure!’” Espinoza returned in five minutes with a large cup of coffee and a pastry. “He said, ‘Here, eat half tonight and save the other half for tomorrow,’” she added.
Cruz eventually found employment as a part-time student assistant for the Technology Checkout Program in the University Library, and landed a second part-time job at Dodger Stadium working weekends as a parking attendant. But even with two jobs Cruz still couldn’t afford the housing that was available to her and continued sleeping in her vehicle.
She longed to visit her family in San Diego, but couldn’t afford the gas. One day, Herrick asked Cruz if she was going to drive home for the weekend.
“I told him that as much as I wanted to go since it was my dad’s birthday, I couldn’t because I didn’t have money for gas,” said Cruz. “He asked again: ‘Do you want to go see your dad? If you really want to go see him, I can pay for your gas.’ I said ‘I would like that very much.’”
The two drove separately to a gas station close by where Herrick filled up her tank. “From that day on, Officer Herrick became a confidant that I could trust,” she said.
Through the help of University Police Chief Carlos Velez, Cruz was put in contact with Jay Jenkins, who was the special projects coordinator at the Women’s Resource Center at the time. Jenkins reached out to University Housing which worked to move Cruz up the waiting list and get her into a housing apartment immediately. Jenkins also contacted Athletics to give Cruz access to the gymnasium showers over winter break, bought her some fresh food and gave her space in the Women’s Resource Center refrigerator, and connected her with off-campus resources such as shelters and food banks.
Cruz, who now lives in Bellflower, was homeless for four months that first semester, but her experiences and the compassion she received from the officers forever changed her. In her final semester on campus, she and fellow student Christian Mosqueda formed Measure DH and partnered with a number of student clubs to bring awareness to student homelessness. They tabled on the East Walkway and coordinated a drive to raise money and goods for the campus food bank.
“Our short-term goal is to identify our homeless students here at Cal State Dominguez Hills,” said Cruz, who although now graduated hopes to stay involved with Measure DH. “We will then help them out and get them the resources that they may need. Even just the bare necessities are important. I should know.”
CSUDH has a number of resources to help students who are at risk of or may be homeless, or don’t have enough to eat. Through the Office of Student Life (OSL), students can access the Toro Pantry and learn about various resources available to them, such as off-campus resources like the ones Jenkins provided to Cruz, and the Faculty and Staff Student Support grant, which provides between $250 to $1,000 in one-time grants to students facing hardships. OSL also leads a campus-wide committee looking at ways to expand the university’s efforts around student homelessness and food insecurity.