“Because of you, I graduated”: An interview about basic needs services with Danielle Muñoz at CSU Long Beach

By CSU Student Success Network Staff

December 2022

“Because of you, I graduated”: An Interview About Basic Needs Services with Danielle Muñoz at California State University, Long Beach

Danielle Muñoz became director of the Basic Needs Department at CSU Long Beach in August 2022, after having created a basic needs center at Sacramento State University, where she worked for over six years. In November, Kalifa Madden, communications manager for the Network, interviewed Danielle about the challenges students face in meeting their basic needs and the services that CSU Long Beach provides to support these students. 

Kalifa Madden: What are you seeing this year regarding the scope and depth of challenges that students face in meeting their basic needs?

Danielle Muñoz: Students have a lot on their plate right now, wondering how they’re going to pay for their books, their food, and their rent while also thinking about their performance in the classroom. When facing these challenges, many students at some point consider the option of not going to school at all, so they can make ends meet. So I think there’s a range of things that students are going through right now, and the depth of challenges can be pretty severe, considering how expensive it is just to live, work, and go to school in California. Students who do not have enough money to rent an apartment or live with roommates are forced to stay home, but not all students have a safe home. So there are also concerns about where our students are living and are they safe environments that are conducive to learning. 

KM: Can you give us some historical context about the need for basic needs services at CSU Long Beach? Have you seen increases since COVID, for example, due to rent increases in California?

DM: Yes, COVID has had a profound impact on our lives, our economies, and the job market. Our students need to have jobs, as do their family members and loved ones. During COVID, many students lost primary caregivers, many lost their homes, and many lost their jobs. So there was a lot of loss and grief. That’s a lot for a student to process, and yet their lives kept going, the university kept going, so I think a lot of students coming back out of COVID are trying to make sense of what happened and what’s next for them. That’s a scary time for students. Their population has not yet reached gainful employment, that’s what they’re working towards, and so they’re especially vulnerable to things like job loss. 

Now that we’re two years past the beginning of COVID, we’re seeing increased numbers of students asking for emergency grants, submitting eviction avoidance requests, and missing meals because they can’t afford food. Students are having to prioritize their expenses to pay for things like housing, since their landlord could evict them. We have a lot of students saying, “I’m going to skip this meal so I can pay for this rent.” We’re also seeing an increase in students experiencing hunger, and it’s really hard to navigate school when you’re experiencing hunger, especially with the threat of homelessness and who knows what else. So yes, COVID has definitely changed the landscape of basic needs in California. I’ve been doing this work since 2016 and I have not seen as many eviction notices and eviction avoidance grants being given as I did during and after COVID.

KM: Considering these substantial needs that students are facing, let’s talk about the basic needs services that CSU Long Beach provides. How would you describe your department’s overall vision and range of services?

DM: Basic needs departments or centers are relatively new for many CSU campuses. Several years ago, campuses received funding from the state that spurred the development of these centers, primarily to ensure that the full range of basic needs services are well aligned and coordinated for students. Prior to that, campuses had basic needs services but this work was mostly done by individual case managers. Funding that we received from the state was instrumental in helping us establish our department and coordinate and expand this work. We’re able to take a more systemic approach, for example by looking at who we’re serving across campus and how we’re serving them. What’s the demographic make-up of our students? How many have Pell grants? How can we work closely with the cultural centers and other folks to make sure our food pantries reflect the different cultures, the way students eat, and the ingredients that they use? How can our basic needs services be trauma informed?

Our long term goal, we hope, involves working ourselves out of a job so that one day there’s enough support so that students don’t struggle so much with housing and food. Toward that end, basic needs centers can serve as platforms to raise issues to the state level concerning what our students are going through and to university administration concerning potential systemic changes that are needed, based on our data and the student stories that we’re hearing. In these ways, we can be catalysts for transformation in higher education for our low-income and first-generation students, who are the ones most affected by food and housing insecurity. 

I like to do one-on-one work with students and truly meet them where they’re at. Currently, we’re helping a lot of folks get back on their feet after COVID, both mentally and physically. Because housing costs are so high, that’s causing extreme stress for so many students. Whenever we provide housing support to a student you can tell immediately how much they benefit, not only from getting housed but also psychologically, the relief they feel when they know that they’re housed and then they’re able to focus on school. And as I’m seeing students in this moment, I’m also gathering data and stories, and then I’m working to elevate those voices and stories, I’m offering solutions, I’m trying to manage up. In these ways, I think that basic needs centers have a leading role in changing the whole landscape and being a catalyst for systemic change. 

KM: Are there services or approaches that CSU Long Beach is particularly good at that other campuses might consider developing?

DM: We are home to one of the top researchers on basic needs, Dr. Rashida Crutchfield. She’s doing groundbreaking work, so it’s a privilege and a pleasure to be on the same campus as her. As her research comes out, we’re able to learn from it and make changes to our own department. Long Beach has always been ahead of the curve on identifying student needs for these services and making sure there’s funding to provide them, including support from the administration. I think some campuses struggle with getting the space to do this work, but we have a beautiful basic needs center and a large food pantry, and that’s a testimony to the administration and how much they value this.

We have the strongest CalFresh program I’ve seen in my six and a half years in this work, the way it’s embedded in all parts of the campus, trying to reach all students. They screen first-generation and low-income students all the way to athletes. They screen students in special programs and foster youth. They build relationships across campus and they make it fun for students by having yoga with CalFresh, art with CalFresh. They really meet students wherever they are. 

In addition, we provide emergency housing for students, and I think we are one of the campuses with the most beds dedicated to this. We have 12 beds and we’re also able to place students in hotels nearby. So far this year, we’ve had the most students we’ve ever had to house, but we have not had a waiting list because we’ve been able to get students into housing within a month. It’s been great to see the dedication of Long Beach State for basic needs. 

KM: Can you tell us more about your services for unhoused students? Are there limitations in what you can provide?

DM: We can provide up to 30 days of emergency housing. We usually provide 14 days, but these times have been so tough that many students need more than that, so we’ve seen students stay up to 30 days. They meet with a case manager; we have licensed social workers on our team. While they’re staying on campus, they can access our other programs. We’re able to give them meal swipes or a meal plan at our dining commons. We do that with no questions asked. We also have a grocery assistance scholarship that we rolled out this year for students who meet the income requirements but who are denied by CalFresh for whatever reason. A lot of students will benefit from that, including our undocumented students who cannot apply for CalFresh, students in abusive relationships who are trying to separate themselves from that CalFresh account, and those do not receive CalFresh quickly enough. Our unhoused students are eligible for that, and we’re able to support their parking permit so that they can park on campus.

We are also launching a rent subsidy program to help students who are working and going to school full time. They’re already doing everything they can to make ends meet, so if they’re still having a hard time we will work with them to provide partial rent support to keep them in school. We also have emergency housing funds and we are bringing back Beach Bites, a program that notifies students of leftover food that is catered on campus. And our CalFresh healthy living team now has a beach kitchen where they teach life skills and cooking classes so that when students receive their Calfresh Benefits they know what to buy and how to cook it.

KM: In providing basic needs services, what are some key challenges that campuses need to be aware of?  

DM: We face challenges on the operational side and on the student side. On the student side, the biggest challenge is the housing market because of high rental prices and this will likely get worse. As rent goes up and students continue to get the same amount of aid, we’re going to see more students struggle with that, and so we need to be working to find long-term solutions for housing affordability. This is important not only for students but also for their families.

On the operations side, a lot of campuses struggle with having access to appropriate spaces that are conducive to serve students who face basic needs challenges. Because students still face stigma around asking for help, the way that we position ourselves on campus—from our outreach to the staff that we hire—can help or hinder our work in trying to get basic needs services out to students. It’s really important to dedicate a good space to this. You’ll need to have trauma-informed staff on site, and you need a variety of programs to meet the variety of ways basic needs show up for your campus populations. For example, we have a variety of different types of housing supports including eviction avoidance to prevent homelessness and rent supports for those who lost their job and need a month or two of rent. On the other end of the spectrum, if you already lost your housing and you’re in your car, we will provide you with emergency housing. 

It’s the same thing with food supports, you’ll need to vary your services. A student may have ongoing food needs, so CalFresh may be their best route. Or they may have a short-term food need and a meal assistance program could be their best route. For your food pantries, you’ll need a cultural variety of foods. Ask your students, what do they cook? What do their families cook? What would they like to cook? What ingredients do they prefer? How can we be more culturally responsive in our food pantries? And that goes for hygiene products, childcare grants,  technology, transportation, and everything else: ask your students what they need. Basic needs centers need to understand what their students are going through. Students with children need diapers, they need wipes, and they need childcare. How can we provide those supports? Students living at home may be sharing technological devices with other family members and they may not have wifi, and so they face some very different challenges. In basic needs centers, we need to gather, understand, and share that range of information, so that the students’ challenges become invitations for us to build out programs that truly address all of these issues that students are facing.

KM: Let’s talk about your communications strategies. How do students find out about your services?

DM: We work closely with all programs across campus to make sure that our services are embedded in their orientations or similar meetings and events throughout the semester. We also have tabling events throughout the year so we are out there on campus letting students know about us. We encourage faculty to include a statement on their syllabus so that students know about us and can reach us. 

This year from August 1 to November 1 we saw over 340 students, which is unfortunate, the number of students experiencing food and housing challenges, but it’s also promising that this many students felt comfortable coming to us and asking for help. Our challenge is not only visibility but also stigma: Did they hear about us and did they feel comfortable coming to us? Our approach in outreach is to make sure both of those needs are met so that as students are learning about us they’re also feeling comfortable with how we’re reaching out to them. That’s why we do the tabling and the partnerships because then we have a consistent and on-going presence that they can trust. We can’t just go out to one event, talk about our services, and expect people to come to us. We have to be out there over and over and in different ways so that students know us and trust us. That’s why our basic needs center is as busy with outreach as we are with one-on-one support.

KM: Do you provide trainings or outreach for faculty and administrators, so they understand the issues that these students are facing?

DM: This spring, we’re going to offer a Wellness Ambassador Training for faculty on campus, and it will be created and rolled out jointly by the Basic Needs Department and by Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). We’re working together to take a holistic approach to student wellness. We want faculty to be able to recognize some of the key issues students are going through and how they might show up in the classroom. We want them to understand that students aren’t just trying to skirt around the syllabus. We’ll include how to engage with the students, what to say, and how to make referrals. Faculty need to feel confident and empowered in this role, because in most cases they’re the first ones who hear about the challenges students face. We want them to be able to say, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Thank you for telling me. Here’s where I’m going to refer you. I’m going to send an e-mail and do a warm-handoff referral.” Faculty who take the training will have access to resources and will be included in a learning community so that they can continue to ask us questions and consult with us.

KM: Tell us about your outcomes and impacts on students. What do we know about the effects of basic needs services in helping to retain students?  

DM: We know that basic needs services strengthen retention and sense of belonging for students. Students who feel like they cannot afford their classes, their rent, and their food, many of them are already starting to doubt if they should even be in college. This is a critical intersection for students on the verge of deciding to go back to work full time. If a campus has a strong basic needs program with effective outreach, students are more likely to come to that program and ask for help. This is where basic needs can be a driver for helping students feel that they belong on campus. We tell students all the time, “Thank you for telling me. We’re so lucky to have you here. I look forward to helping you.” Or: “You know we want students like you on this campus. I’m sorry that your housing challenge is getting in the way. Here are resources to help you. We want to see you do well in school. We want to see you succeed here.” 

I don’t have the data yet here at Long Beach State, but at the other CSU campus where I worked, we had a 90% retention rate for students in our emergency housing program and almost a 100% retention rate for students in our emergency fund program. The grade point average for the emergency fund students was over 2.7. So we know that these programs work for academics and retention. We also know that when you get the help that you need like emergency housing, you’re able to study, sleep, eat, and do well in class. As basic needs director here at Long Beach State, I plan to dive into the retention data, but meanwhile from what students are telling us, I know that these services help keep them on campus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Because of you, I graduated.” “If it wasn’t for your services, I wouldn’t have graduated.” Basic needs services are crucial for these students in terms of staying in the classroom, staying in good academic standing, making progress toward their degree, and truly feeling like they belong on this campus. 

KM: Tell us about your next steps for basic needs services at CSU Long Beach? What are you working on now?

DM: We’re examining ways to offer more targeted and culturally responsive basic needs programming based on data. For example, we know that our Black and Latino students are highly represented in our homeless populations. From my experience working at another campus, we gathered data showing that juniors and seniors who were women of color were highly represented in the unhoused student populations as well. We’re considering ways to provide prevention services early for these and other student populations—for example, through strategic partnerships—so that these students are less likely to experience basic needs challenges. As I mentioned earlier, we are also working with our food pantries to encourage them to be more culturally responsive. Based on data that the housing affordability crisis is on-going for students, we are looking to move from one-time emergency grants and towards rent-subsidy or housing-scholarship models, because the reality is that students cannot afford their rent every month. I’m also looking to do more to support academic affairs, to ensure that faculty know how to identify students’ basic needs, how to express care and concern, and how to refer them to appropriate services.

Looking forward, I believe that campuses with strong basic needs programs will continue to have better data for student retention and sense of belonging. Given the challenges that students face in coming through COVID, I think that basic needs should remain a priority at least through the next few years. And after that, we’re still up against the housing affordability crisis. It’s hard for students to afford rent and that creates a systemic issue that we all need to address. Our basic needs department will continue to provide data and stories to the larger community to address the housing affordability issue that we all have in California.