Erik Kersenbrock’s home is a small school bus, usually parked on the campus of Central Oregon Community College, where he studies engineering. The rows of seats in his frills-free bus have been replaced with a futon bed, a cabinet filled with cooking supplies, a mini-fridge and a couple other amenities. Kersenbrock said he plans on more renovations soon, like adding window curtains and covering the bare insulation on the ceiling of the bus.
Kersenbrock, 29, said living in his bus is mostly by choice — money’s tight, but because his COCC tuition is covered by grants and scholarships, he admits he’s doing OK financially. But he knows other COCC students in similar situations aren’t as fortunate.
“Every once in a while, I hear about a younger student that has found themselves in a bad housing situation, or are suddenly out of their housing,” said Kersenbrock, a Kansas native. “The housing’s not getting any cheaper, and it seems like that’s been the trend for a while.”
So he’s decided to help.
Kersenbrock, along with COCC’s student council president, Julia Russell, are pushing the college to provide more support for students who live in their cars. Their goals include having a designated parking space for these students and allowing them to use the gym showers for free.
Kersenbrock said COCC students living in their cars — he estimates there’s about 20 to 30 of them, but he doesn’t know for sure — should receive help because they’re actively trying to improve their lives by earning a degree.
“If they’re already working for something, why can’t we give them a hand?” he said.
Designated overnight parking spaces would be a big help to students like Kersenbrock, he said. Right now, parking at COCC is allowed between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.; those who leave vehicles overnight could get a citation and be towed, according to the college’s website.
Kersenbrock said campus security officers have never asked him to move his bus, but he still follows the no-overnight parking rule, parking in different off-campus locations each night. He also said campus security will make exceptions if a student is having car problems.
Still, he wants a spot for students to park their vehicle homes — or as he puts it, “a place where we feel like we’re allowed to be.” He suggested the area could have portable toilets and a dumpster, to keep it clean. He also wants picnic benches, to create a friendly vibe among those students.
“If there’s a little community, that can create a lot of support for people, and that’s exactly what you need when you’re in a sticky situation,” Kersenbrock said.
Kersenbrock also wants displaced students to have free access to the campus’ gym showers. Students now have to pay $20 per term for gym access, including showers.
“It’s not an unreasonable rate, but if there’s some kid that suddenly finds themselves in a bad situation, $20 is three, four, five meals,” he said.
Russell, the 22-year-old council president, said she empathized with the COCC students living in their cars. She couch-surfed for a year while growing up in Sunriver. She said Bend’s skyrocketing rents have forced more students to live in their cars.
“Our cost of living has risen to extreme amounts in a really short time, so we’re trying to catch up,” said Russell.
Russell said she’s working on having administrators create special parking passes for these students. She believes this could happen before the end of this school year.
Russell acknowledged that many of these goals could take awhile to be approved.
“Unfortunately, with government, everything is a really, really slow-moving process,” she said.
Gordon Price, COCC’s student activities coordinator , said he’s met with Kersenbrock and Russell about their goals, and said they could be realized — in a couple years. First, the college wants to research what other colleges have done to help students who live in their cars, as well as get a head count of how many homeless students are enrolled at COCC.
“If we can get an accurate count ... it helps move the needle,” Price said.
Kersenbrock plans on earning his associate’s degree in June and leaving for a four-year university to earn his bachelor’s, so he knows he’s not likely to see any changes during his COCC tenure.
But he’s fine with that, as long as other students who can’t find housing can get support from the college.
“I would love to reap the benefits of it, but I’m in a pretty good place,” Kersenbrock said. “I’m trying to set the stage for other students in the future.”