The choice was between comfort and money. Fifth year senior Gary Gao had the option to stay in the apartment he previously lived in. But, the Psychology and Statistical Science double major would have had to rely on his parents for financial help, hurting their standard of living. Gao would not be able to use his earnings and financial aid to keep his family in a comfortable, albeit less than ideal situation.
“It would have been really hard for me too,” Gao said with his head down, about his ultimate decision of going homeless for his family. “They needed the money more than I do.”
By living in his vehicle, Gao saves approximately $600 a month. With his paycheck from working at the dining commons together with financial aid, he can send home a “significant” amount of money without putting his living condition in further jeopardy while having, as Gao described it, “a little bit” for himself.
However, as commonly known to UCSB and many Isla Vista residents, visitors and students alike enjoy a social atmosphere, sometimes resulting in irresponsible behavior. With his 2017 Toyota Corolla parked in the 6500 block of I.V., Gao found residents to be “generally respectful” to their surroundings.
Still, bad luck has occasionally hit Gao and his vehicles.
“I remember getting my mirror smashed with my last car and I was pretty pissed about that,” Gao recalled an incident that occurred in May 2017. This was before a later accident in East Los Angeles in November when his 1999 Toyota Camry was hit by another vehicle while he was sleeping in it.
“Sometimes people also draw penises on your car,” Gao chuckled.
Sick of the tiny spaces which he sleeps frequently in and the inadequate rest that he gets, Gao sometimes spends the night or naps during the day at the MultiCultural Center (MCC) on campus, as well as Davidson Library.
While sleeping at the MCC, however, Gao has had at least three run-ins with local law enforcement.
“I think they (law enforcement) tend to see the person who calls them as the victim and they are just trying to defend them,” Gao said. “They are just trying to keep me from sleeping in the building even though I know it’s perfectly legal for me to be there because I am a student.”
Speaking from his experience, Gao also said that library staff has told him it was against policy for him to be sleeping there overnight.
Being homeless means that Gao does not have easy access to showers. As an avid weightlifter, Gao enjoys going to the Recreation Center because it also gives him the chance to shower and to take care of his personal hygiene.
Growing up, Gao described himself as the “wild child” who spent numerous nights across L.A. County, from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills, Union Station, and West Covina. Though his family struggled in the lower middle class, Gao always maintained a close relationship with his mother and stepdad.
At school, however, his journey has not always been smooth.
“I would get straight Fs,” Gao recalled attending Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel, Calif. “In sixth grade, it was pretty bad. I remember halfway through, they put me in special ed.”
Being the only Asian student in the program, Gao was allowed to take certain classes, such as math, outside the program. However, he was required to stay in the special education classes for English.
Gao recalled his experience with the program while in 8th grade, “I remember one thing that stood out to me the most was when they said ‘hey we are going to do an activity today, let’s start by writing job applications to fast food restaurants.’”
The end to middle school was only a temporary break for Gao to be away from the special education program.
In the beginning of his freshman year at Gabrielino High School, Gao’s family was evicted from their house and was forced to move from Monterey Park to Alhambra. As a result, Gao had to transfer to Mark Keppel High School as a second semester freshman.
Quickly falling behind, Gao found himself in the high school’s remedial program.
Three years later in December 2010, after attempting and passing the General Educational Development (GED) exam, Gao began his 5 year community college journey at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) during what would have been his final semester in high school. There, he received his first ever B at his freshmen level English class.
Though depressed, his determination in pursuing a degree and making his family proud slowly turned things around. Immediately after his initial success in English, Gao found the motivation that carried him through the years that followed.
“Overnight I just started working harder,” Gao said. “I would study all the time. I would be reading all the time, I would go to the library a lot of time and just read there and just work hard.”
Gao recalled the feeling he got after finishing his second semester with an almost perfect GPA as “the best feeling in the world.”
“The only class I did well [in in high school] was psychology, so I thought it was really interesting. The reason I went into psych was because I wanted to learn more about mind control, it was kind of silly,” Gao said.
Gao decided to add a second major in statistical science soon after realizing that the psychology classes involved “a lot of research and stuff and writing paper.”
Looking back, Gao once thought life was unfair towards him and that he would soon drop out again and “go work at a fast food restaurant.”
“All throughout high school I was going through depression too partly because of my family, and also because I was doing so bad in school,” Gao said. “I felt like it would be easier on my parents if I just died…I wanted to make my parents happy or else I should just stop bothering them.”
Years later, as Gao spoke to The Bottom Line on a Monday evening before winter quarter was set to begin, he admitted that he sometimes still thinks life is “a little bit unfair.” However, he no longer thinks that as much as he realizes how “fortunate” he is to attend university while many people he has met have not due to many reasons.
As for the future, Gao wants to work as an actuary while training professionally as a wrestler. He attributes this hobby to his friend who took care of him when he was younger and who also started an organization to help homeless people.
“I know a lot of times, a lot of people would call the cops on me, especially at the MCC, because I just look homeless, but I just think whenever you look at a homeless person you shouldn’t just think they’re crazy and what not,” Gao said. “They are persons too, they have their own feelings and challenges and life stories, and I see a lot people that really disregard someone who looks homeless or just because they are homeless.”