Helping USC’s Homeless

| December 18, 2018

USC Viterbi’s Sandeep Suresh helped build a website that provides invaluable information to USC’s hidden hungry and homeless population.

Alec Vandenberg and Sandeep Suresh (Photos/Kayly Luong)

As a young boy, Sandeep Suresh often accompanied his parents to Kochi in the Indian state of Kerala, his mother and father’s birthplace. Suresh, now a junior majoring in computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has many fond memories of that distant land. However, one remembrance still haunts him to this day.

As Suresh and his parents walked through a dusty local market, an 8-year-old beggar approached. The bedraggled boy asked if he could have the Orange Fanta Suresh was drinking. What to Suresh was a half-empty, warm can of soda was liquid gold to the emaciated child, who broke into a huge grin when Suresh gave it to him.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Suresh said street people and squalor hid in plain sight amid the region’s opulence, just like in parts of India. Those brutal images troubled him. So, years later when Suresh matriculated at USC, he was thrilled when the professors of his Spark SC class, assigned him and his teammates to come up with a project on homelessness. In time, they narrowed their focus, deciding to build a resource-rich website for housing and food-insecure USC students.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that a population like that exists here,” said Suresh, who launched the first version of the site in May 2017, in partnership with Alec Vandenberg, a junior at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “We wanted to bring light to the problem and help those forgotten students however we could.”

Over the past year-and-a-half, Suresh and Vandenberg have continuously updated the site, which gathers together in one place resources for the hungry and homeless, ranging from information about local food pantries to scholarships for indigent students to emergency housing services.

The website has filled a pressing need, said Brenda Wiewel, director of USC’s Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness.

“Some of our students have definitely used it,” said Wiewel, who has put a link to Suresh and Vanderberg’s site on Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness’s homepage. “It’s a great thing.”

USC is believed to have hundreds of students who have had a challenge with getting enough food or may be struggling with housing at any given time.

Hunger and homelessness affect thousands of college students nationwide. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, half of all higher-education students have trouble putting food on the table. A division of the U.S. Department of Education reports an estimated 58,000 homeless students on American campuses.

Closer to home, about 10 percent of California State University’s students are homeless, while 20 percent lack regular access to enough food, according to a study commissioned by CSU Chancellor Timothy White.

Sandeep Suresh

Against this backdrop, Suresh began his journey into homeless advocacy, which has changed him as much as it has benefitted food and housing-insecure USC students.

When, as a freshman, his Spark SC team had to come up with an idea to address homelessness, Suresh felt a bit lost. Where to start? What to do? Then it all came together. After USC Provost Michael Quick guest lectured about the challenges facing the university, including homeless students, Suresh, Vandenberg and Sidharth Raguraman, who has since left the project, decided to create a website that would serve as an online hub for their peers in need.

Vandenberg, a public policy major, tracked down resources to feature on the website, which the budding engineer Suresh built. They met with Wiewel of the Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness for additional leads and advice. At this point, though, the idea of hungry, homeless students at USC seemed like something of an abstraction to Suresh.

Then he came face to face with the problem.

One night at 3 a.m., a procrastinating Suresh went to Leavey Library to work on a computer science assignment. Moments later, a student around his age sat down near him. He opened a book and put it face down; pulled his USC card out of his pocket and put it faceup on the desk; and then went to sleep on his backpack. Suresh left him a note saying he might be able to help.

The homeless student, a history major, soon got in touch. He told Suresh that his blue-collar father had injured himself on the job and could no longer send money to help with his expenses. The student could no longer pay rent and lost his apartment, soon spending many a night dozing in the library. He showered at USC’s Lyon Recreation Center and sought out campus events where he could eat free food. Suresh put him in touch with Wiewel, who helped the young man.

“After I met that student, that’s when I really started to feel it, to really want to make a difference in people’s lives,” Suresh said.

He and Vandenberg continued to work on their website, even after their Spark SC class ended. In reaction to user online feedback, Suresh simplified the design, dividing resources into three easy to access categories: USC, Los Angeles and national resources.

Vandenberg, now director of external affairs for the USC Undergraduate Student Government, helped publicize the homeless website through USG’s social media accounts. Vandenberg also leveraged his student government connections to make a film – with  USG equipment – to raise awareness about homelessness on college campuses, including USC. That video now resides on his and Suresh’s site.

“We want to really breakdown the stigma surrounding this issue and open up doors for people in need,” Vandenberg said. “We want students to have conversations about these issues and to act as resources for one another.”

Working on the website has also had a profound effect on Suresh.

Like many students, he hoped to do well at USC Viterbi and then land a job at one of the blue-chip tech companies hungry for young, talented USC computer science graduates. Suresh said his goals have since changed.

“Working on this website made me realize that what’s most important to me is to help other people with my CS education to make their lives better,” he said. “I’m considering the nonprofit sector now.”

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