How Hollywood Is Helping Homeless College Students in L.A. Get Housing and Finish School

Hollywood power players are taking notice of the nonprofit group Los Angeles Room & Board, which works to provide housing, meals and support to college students experiencing homelessness in L.A.

Los Angeles Room & Board is the model by which we should be helping each other,” singer and The Voice vocal coach Stevie Mackey tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They provide way more than a home. They provide a life with real, quality experiences.”

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Other supporters of the organization include writer-producer John Wells (ER, Shameless, Maid) and his wife, Marilyn; actress Shanola Hampton; NBA all-star Jrue Holiday and his wife, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Lauren Holiday; Bradley Whitford; Euphoria’s Algee Smith; and singer-songwriter Eric Bellinger. In February, founder and CEO Sam Prater appeared on The Jennifer Hudson Show to promote the charity.

For Prater, the nonprofit is one of his passions. Born in Detroit, the 12th of 14 children, Prater dropped out of high school before restarting his educational journey at the age of 23 at a local community college. While earning his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at California State University, he worked with the Dean of Students Office where he managed the Basic Needs Initiative.

While working there, Prater began to observe the students who attended events where meals were provided. “I would notice that folks would line up, and when we’d bring food, they’d bring Tupperware, and they would ravage the food,” Prater says.

He also became disturbed by the number of students dropping out of school due to poverty.

“At the end of the semester, they were saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to take the semester off [because] money got a little tight. I’ll work and come back,’” Prater recalls. “This happened over and over again. People were dropping out of school, not because they weren’t smart, not because they couldn’t handle the rigor of college-level work — it was because they didn’t have housing or food.”

Los Angeles Room and Board - Excelsior House - housing
Rendering of Los Angeles Room & Board’s Excelsior House.

This problem is widespread throughout the region. In Los Angeles County, one in 10 students at four-year colleges is experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. At community colleges, the number soars to one in five.

Los Angeles Room & Board, founded by Prater in 2020, aims to change that — one bed and one home-cooked meal at a time. The first Room & Board home opened at an old sorority house across the street from UCLA. In less than two years, the organization went from housing and feeding 15 students to having 190 beds available in four houses across L.A., primarily for students attending community colleges.

There are now four Room & Board transitional houses across L.A. “We have tried to create spaces where people can feel dignity and feel proud of where they live,” says Prater.

Los Angeles Room & Board works with the County of Los Angeles, which refers foster youths and young adults coming out of the criminal justice system. They also partner with both community colleges and four-year colleges to identify students experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.

“In addition to providing housing free of charge to students, we also provide three meals a day cooked by our culinary team. We have full-time chefs who are providing fresh meals. Many of the meals that folks eat we grow the produce in the backyard,” Prater says. “It’s a comprehensive, wrap-around program [offering] supportive services, tutoring, academic and career development, financial literacy, and planning and life skills. We try to do everything we can to give them skills to be successful, whether on campus or in their community.”

As Prater notes, trying to help these students is daunting — 45,000 beds would be needed to house all at-risk college students in Los Angeles County — and also very expensive. In December 2023, Room & Board hosted its first holiday fundraiser, alongside celebrity partners Mackey, Smith and singer Josiah Bell. “I think the whole community heard us singing that night,” Mackey says. “And I hope they felt the impact Los Angeles Room & Board is making.”

But there is more work to be done. “When no student has to decide between housing and college,” Prater says, “we can hang it up.”

Los Angeles Room and Board - Dunamis House - holiday event December 2023
Holiday event at Los Angeles Room and Board’s Dunamis House, December 2023.

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