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He attends an elite university but lives in a trailer with no heat or sewer hookups

Issued: 2018-03-17

The willpower to persevere when the cards are stacked against you.

HAYWARD, Calif. —

Ismael Chamu wakes up at sunrise, shivering in the drizzly morning’s chill. He rises from the floor of a small trailer, where he sleeps wedged next to his younger brother and an arm’s length from his two sisters, who share the only bed.

As he cooks breakfast, the smell of scrambled eggs and ripe sewage combine. There is no sewer hookup so when the storage tank is full, as it is this day, everyone holds on until they can get to a nearby gas station.

“Hurry up so you guys can eat,” Ismael, 21, tells his sisters Jocelyn, 14, and Yazmin, 17.

At 7:40 a.m., he shepherds his sisters to high school, a 30-minute walk through gang territory in Hayward, just south of Oakland. At the school gate, he hugs them goodbye.

Then he heads to his classes at the University of California, Berkeley, the nation’s most elite public research university.

Ismael looks the part of a typical college student, with his backpack, black jeans and stylish fade haircut. But he bears extraordinary burdens.

He’s one of tens of thousands of California college students slammed by the state’s affordable housing crunch.

Ismael constantly scrambles to find shelter and enough food for himself and his siblings while working a campus job, leading a student club and trying to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

In the last 18 months, he has slept on couches and floors, in trailers and attics. Since November, he and his 20-year-brother Edward have rented the 20-foot-by-8-foot mobile home, parked in a Hayward driveway. His sisters joined them in January after their parents fell on hard times in the Central Valley and were forced to live in their car.

But Hayward has outlawed living in residential trailers. The family is due to be evicted Tuesday. And so the scramble will begin again.

“You do what you gotta do,” Ismael says gamely.

Financial aid covers tuition for the state’s growing number of low-income students, but they mostly are on their own when it comes to paying for places to live. Many UC campuses are in some of the priciest real-estate markets.

A recent University of California study estimated that roughly 13,000 of the system’s 260,000 students have struggled with unstable housing. That guess comes from two 2016 surveys, in which 5 percent of the nearly 70,000 students who responded said they had couch-surfed, lived on the street or found temporary shelter in vehicles, motels or campgrounds at some point since they had enrolled.

Cal State estimates about 41,000 students have unstable housing; the Los Angeles Community College District, about 44,000.

UC President Janet Napolitano has a plan to build 14,000 affordable beds by 2020 and has given each of the system’s nine undergraduate campuses $3 million to help them meet housing needs. UC and Cal State campuses are trying to reach out to students who might also be hungry with expanded food pantries, meal-sharing plans, campus gardens and emergency loans.

But most everyone agrees that the efforts are not nearly enough.

Ismael arrives at Berkeley after a 90-minute trip by foot and a train on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART. He steps onto a campus with grand buildings and a bell tower, redwoods and a flowing creek. As he arrives, the rain stops, the clouds part and the sun peeks through.

It seems crazy to be at Cal, Ismael says.

He is the son of a migrant worker who never got past first grade in an indigenous community in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. His family has moved more times than Ismael can keep straight. He was born in San Diego, then lived down South, where his father cut Christmas trees in North Carolina and picked tobacco in South Carolina.

Ismael was the only Mexican in his class, but a couple of white boys befriended him. “They said I was a good Mexican,” he says, “because I was smart.”

When he was 14, the family moved to Hayward on the promise of lucrative construction work. They lived with an aunt for a few months until she kicked them out. Then came a blur of schools and homes: a pink apartment in Hayward, a friend’s place in San Jose, a trailer in Los Banos.

Ismael bumped through three different high schools and somehow managed to excel — even though he woke up most mornings at 4 a.m. to help his father with gardening jobs before he rushed to class. He took eight Advanced Placement courses, passed six of the exams and racked up a 4.0 GPA.

His stellar academic record — aided perhaps by his personal essay on how he wouldn’t let his hardships defeat him — helped him become one of the lucky 18 percent of 74,000 freshman applicants admitted to Berkeley in 2014.

He thought about not going, to be able to earn money for his family. But it was his parents — and a high school counselor — who urged him on.


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