Many community college students go hungry, but this nonprofit is working to end that in south Orange County

Volunteer Carrie Wulf helps sort items in the food pantry at South County Outreach in Irvine.
Volunteer Carrie Wulf separates the good eggs from the bad as she helps sort items in the food pantry at South County Outreach in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
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An Irvine-based homeless nonprofit is partnering with Irvine Valley and Saddleback community colleges to help students experiencing food and housing insecurity.

South County Outreach is taking over the schools’ food pantries to provide students with much-needed sustenance as they work to get their degrees. Starting this fall semester, the nonprofit is also offering a program allowing Saddleback College students to apply for housing in South County Outreach’s 17 condominiums. The pilot program is considered the first of its kind for the school.

LaVal Brewer, president and chief executive of South County Outreach, said the nonprofit is hoping to do its small part because it is very difficult for students to get into affordable housing.


“The number of youth who are going to community colleges who are hungry is staggering,” Brewer said. “There’s that old saying, ‘Oh, I was a starving student.’ But you still had a roof over your head, you probably had a little bit of food.

“There are some who don’t have a roof over their head, don’t have any food, and the ability for them to still make it through college and better themselves is much more difficult when those two issues arise.”

While college students overall wrestle with housing and food insecurity, community college students are particularly at risk. According to a 2019 survey from the Health Services Assn. of Community Colleges of California, 70% of students who responded to the survey experienced food or housing insecurity in the last year. Also, 41% of students who responded to the survey reported that they skipped meals or ate smaller portions.

Brewer said this could be for a number of reasons, including that many adults attend community college, in addition to managing family and work lives.

“Most of these students are not just hungry, they’re also trying to balance a school-load and oftentimes a workload,” Brewer said.

Staffers Chelsea Mascareno, from left, Ruby Osorio and Megan Ryan stock food items at South County Outreach.
Staffers Chelsea Mascareno, from left, Ruby Osorio and Megan Ryan stock food items in an aisle in the food pantry at South County Outreach in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

South County Outreach has been providing homeless services for more than 30 years since founder Ray Havert started it in his garage.

Traditionally, the focus on homelessness in Orange County centers on north Orange County cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim, where there are higher numbers of homeless people, and the issue tends to be more visible. However, it’s still a problem in the more affluent southern cities.

While most of Orange County’s homeless are located in central and northern cities, the percentage of unsheltered people in south county was higher, as of the last countywide homeless count, than the other regions.

South Orange County includes Irvine, Dana Point, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Beach, Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita, Laguna Woods and Laguna Niguel.

According to the most recent Point in Time homeless count in 2019, there were 516 homeless people in south county cities. About 83% of the homeless people were unsheltered. Of the 90 people who were sheltered, 84% were in Laguna Beach, which has the Friendship Shelter, the most substantial homeless shelter in south Orange County.

According to the Point in Time numbers, about 63% of homeless people in central Orange County were unsheltered, and about 70% of homeless people were unsheltered in north county.

“People who are living in south county needed support and help, but they didn’t know where to turn, and they didn’t have anyone to turn to,” Brewer said. “... As far as homelessness services, there’s a lack of providers in south county.”

According to South County Outreach, requests for assistance from homeless people and families has increased by 23% in 2021. Requests for rental assistance specifically rose by 96% since 2020. The nonprofit has approved $2.9 million in rental assistance and $95,000 in utility assistance so far this year.

Staffers Ivy Nguyen, left, and Megan Ryan arrange food items at South County Outreach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Brewer said homelessness isn’t always visible. Homeless people could be living in their cars, in a motel or, in the case of many college students, couch-surfing between friends’ homes.

“You may not see them, but they still don’t have a place to call their home,” Brewer said.

The nonprofit provides a number of services, including running a food pantry in Irvine, rental assistance and support in finding housing.

“We help renters stay in their homes because we know that when a renter in a young family falls out of their home through eviction, bad things happen from there,” Brewer said. “Children don’t get to go to the schools that they traditionally go to ... They have to find new housing, and that’s always hard. So we’re really all about making sure people don’t fall into homelessness by preventing that homelessness by supporting rental assistance.”

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