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FLC Basic Needs Coordinator joins housing effort
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FLC Basic Needs Coordinator joins housing effort

As the nationwide housing crisis continues to rage across college campuses in America, Fort Lewis College is working with key staff members like Stella Zhu to develop dynamic responses to the issue. Zhu, a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, was hired in February 2022 to continue building the community of care deeply ingrained in FLC culture. 

“We’re prioritizing basic needs like housing and investing in our students,” Zhu said. “It’s a huge step for any institution to assign a basic needs coordinator, especially of a school of this size.” 

Stella works with students, staff, and community members to assist students currently without shelter or at risk of becoming houseless. 

Central to this assistance is Zhu’s new “rapid re-housing” program, which seeks to house in-need students within 30 days of their request. The program is threefold: (1) housing identification, (2) rent & move-in assistance, and (3) case management. 

Housing Identification 

For the first part of the program, Zhu works with Zackary Kessner, a citizen of the Seminole Nation and senior studying Sociology. He was recently appointed as the first-ever basic needs intern and will base his senior research on the experience.  

Kessner will manage the emergency housing shelter in the Centennial Complex. The shelter will have approximately eight beds available, and they will serve as a temporary place for students to sleep as they wait for a secure housing option.

Kessner will be working with those students to identify available long-term rental units during their stay at the Complex. To that end, Kessner works directly with Carie Harrison, the director of the non-profit Oak Tree Youth Resources, to keep tabs on property openings. 

“We joined with what Stella and Zack were already doing,” Harrison said. “Stella and Zack are fantastic, and we’re helping them assess what can be done. We keep our ears open for them, and we’ve made progress looking through the nooks and crannies.”

The experience working with students and non-profits, Kessner said, has been invaluable. “It’s been especially great working with Stella. She’s someone I can look up to, and we’ve made great headway so far.” 

In addition to Kessner’s efforts, Zhu has worked with campus leadership to secure $15,000 from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority Direct Effect Award to pay for emergency housing at hotels. But, this is only the first piece of the puzzle. 

Rent & Move-In Assistance

For the second part of the program, Zhu worked with campus leadership and Manna Soup Kitchen in Durango to set up a rental payment assistance program. This program will provide monetary aid to students who need time to get financially secure while they move in, and Manna will help implement it. Thus far, the partnership between Zhu and Manna Soup Kitchen has proven fruitful. 

“Stella is great at problem-solving and finding ways to meet the needs of students,” said Ann Morse, director of Manna Soup Kitchen. “This collaborative partnership has been extremely beneficial for us because she can provide feedback on how to better serve the students and the community.” 

The key to this program’s overall success, though, lies in following up with students even after they move into a new place. 

Case Management

After a student finishes unpacking, stocking their fridge, and getting settled, there might still be things they need help with like negotiating with a landlord, finding a job, or getting counseling. 

"We’re not going to be hands-off. We want students to be confident in their housing situation and have some stability. When a student feels like they’ve gotten on their feet, that’s when we’ll be hands-off."

Stella Zhu

To help students with these concerns, Zhu calls upon FLC’s integrated support system to tie in her work with other offices on campus, like the Counseling Center and Career Services. Additionally, she will offer workshops on how to be a good tenant or neighbor to ease the stigma of students renting in Durango. 

“We’re not going to be hands off,” Zhu said. “We want students to be confident in their housing situation and have some stability. When a student feels like they’ve gotten on their feet, that’s when we’ll be hands off.” 

The Way Forward

Zhu’s comprehensive, upstream approach to housing helps FLC realize its commitment to building a community of care. With Zhu’s help, FLC can show other institutions how to best support their students’ success. 

As she continues her work, FLC is pursuing other long-term avenues to provide housing for the campus community. Though far off, these solutions on tap are forward-looking and student-centered. In this interim period, Zhu is bridging the gap for those in immediate need. 

“I’m feeling confident,” Zhu said. “I’ve had four or five students this past week who’ve been able to move into stable housing. Last year, I would have students come to me, and all I could offer was a sleeping bag. Now, we have a program” 

While these students wait for more space to be built on campus, Zhu tirelessly works to ensure that the students find their homes at FLC. 

 

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