The upstairs of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Koreatown is currently the backdrop to music lessons and church hangout sessions, but two USC students see the foundations of a home.

Junior Abigail Leung and sophomore Esther Cha want to develop a homeless shelter for college students in the space above the main multipurpose room and kitchen adjacent to the main chapel. They shared their proposal with the church's congregation on Sunday, Jan. 27 to transform two of the back rooms into dorms– one for men and one for women.

An estimated 2,000 USC students experienced homelessness in 2017, according to an unpublished report from the University's Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness. FAFSA estimated in 2013, that across the country, 58,000 students experience homelessness.

Cha, a business major and Leung, a public policy major, want to provide housing for these students by creating Trojan Shelter. In this location, they could house 12 students who apply through an online portal and are enrolled in at least two units at any local college.

IMG_6853
Trojan Shelter co-founders uunior Abigail Leung (left) and sophomore Esther Cha (right).

"A lot of people ask us how are people homeless if they can pay for USC tuition. A different way to look at it is these students care so much about their education that they're willing to not even have a home to be able to get their degree," Cha said.

Ushering donors through the second floor on Sunday, Cha and Leung articulated how a closet could be transformed into showers, a meeting room could become a study room full of resources and how the pantry could be refurbished to serve more than just occasional snacks.

"It was really cool for us to meet our donors face to face," said Cha. "And just seeing everyone get excited about our space."

Currently, there is no infrastructure to make the space livable but they hope to get the permits and renovations done in time for move-in by fall 2019. While they have raised $32,000, to get up and running by fall, they need to hit their funding goal of $140,000, which they anticipate will include donations of furniture and other supplies.

Charlene Nakamura, the treasurer of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, said there are members of the community who visit the facility who she believes will benefit from having college students around.

"There are a lot of young people in elementary, middle and high school [who visit St. Mary's] and it would be nice to expose them to students that are in college because most of these families have not had anyone go to college," Nakamura said.

If Trojan Shelter obtains the permits for this location, it will be the second shelter for homeless college students in the country, after the Bruin Shelter in Santa Monica. It will also be part of Students 4 Students, which they hope will be a network of homeless shelters for and by students across the country.

IMG_6833 copy
The founders of Trojan Shelter hope to designate part of the kitchen space in the multipurpose room on the first floor for resident use.

The founder of Bruin Shelter, Louis Tse, has toured St. Mary's Episcopal Church several times and notes that it's a huge advantage that the space could hold twice as many students as the Bruin Shelter.

"This space is really incredible. It's close to USC, large enough to house a lot of students who need a place to call home and most importantly, people who run this space really embody the spirit of family," Tse said.

However, the increased bed space will still not be able to keep pace with the huge demand for housing. Cha said Bruin Shelter has a waiting list of 100 students and Trojan Shelter is anticipating similar demand.

"Most people aren't aware of this bullet wound, and by doing what we can as USC students, we are spreading awareness about this issue, and thus, doing much more than tacking on a bandaid," said Leung.

Students who want to get involved can donate supplies or contribute to their crowdfunding. As successful as their fundraising efforts have been, Cha said she wants to start painting walls and moving in beds.

"Today I was walking around thinking 'I cannot wait for the day when I can show people a tour of the final live shelter,'" she said.