A 7-year-old girl sitting on a motel bed, surrounded by homework, siblings, and parents, who have crammed their lives into one small room. A 10-year-old boy entering a classroom with his head down, ashamed to have slept on yet another couch of yet another family friend, and to not know where he will sleep tonight.
These are the images of children struggling with homelessness in Orange County. While we may not see these "motel kids" along the streets or desperately gripping cardboard signs, they exist in overwhelming abundance.
Childhood homelessness is Orange County's best-kept secret. Under its veil of affluence are the faces of more than 32,000 children experiencing homelessness and 120,000 children living in poverty. They say goodnight from motels, shelters, and couches. They are forced to focus on where they will sleep instead of what they will learn. Tragically, their educations and futures suffer.
Alex M. Johnson, Executive Director of the Children's Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA), asks in a recent Huffington Post piece, "Don't forget about California's homeless children." He conjures up the typical faces that come to mind when confronted with the state's homeless epidemic—the disfigured Veteran in a wheelchair, the tattered handwritten signs. While many of us may be immune to these images, what we have likely not witnessed firsthand are the tens of thousands of homeless children who unfairly suffer as a result of their unfortunate, dangerous, and damaging living situations.
Johnson hits readers with shocking data from the U.S. Department of Education, like that one in every 30 children in the country experienced homelessness in 2013, and that "California has the largest population of homeless children in the country." On a local level here in Orange County, it's one in six. Additionally, at 6.5 percent of total enrollment, Orange County has more homeless or housing-insecure students than the 4.8 percent California average, with a higher percentage than neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties, per the California Department of Education.
The effects of youth homelessness are devastating, ranging from chronic emotional stress and physical malnourishment to significant academic gaps and difficulty making friends. Children experiencing homelessness are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school, and three times more likely to be placed in special education programs than their housed peers, according to The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.
But there is hope. In his brief exposition, Johnson asks, "So where should we start?"
His answer is complex: "In order to create lasting solutions to end child homelessness in California, we must begin by addressing child poverty. Poverty and the lack of affordable housing are the principal causes of family homelessness." And he's right. Housing and education are inextricably linked, and in Orange County, families with children make up 70 percent of the homeless population. As we've seen with the kids and families we serve, "…millions of California families with children are just one paycheck, illness, eviction or family crisis away from homelessness."
At Project Hope Alliance, we start with the kids.
All children want to learn and thrive, and since 1989, Project Hope Alliance has been working to make this desire a reality by ending the cycle of homelessness, one child at a time. Since 2012, we have ended homelessness for more than 120 families—representing more than 400 children—by stabilizing families in their own homes and providing their children with an exceptional education.
Our impactful two-generational approach ends homelessness today by rapidly rehousing the families we serve and helping them achieve financial independence. We end the cycle of generational homelessness tomorrow by empowering our kids with a unique academic program lovingly tailored to their skills and strengths. Two especially notable programs are our innovative new Bright Start Pilot Program and our core Family Stability Program.
Launched in Fall 2015, Bright Start equips the kids we serve with the skills, knowledge, and mentoring needed to enter a classroom and excel. Combining Waterford Early Learning academic curriculum, Every Monday Matters inspirational curriculum, and MIND Research Institute Spatial-Temporal (ST) Math® software, the program pairs elementary-age children with supportive volunteer mentors who help guide them through an inspiring experience. Each student receives a laptop, creating an enduring partnership between the child and learning that remains with the student wherever he or she goes, from classroom to home. Parents and families learn how to best advocate for academic success via monthly Collective "Imagine It" Dinners. As a result, the four-fold program uplifts, connects, and empowers each family member, because every one matters.
Our Family Stability Program partners with families in Orange County to prevent or end homelessness by rapidly rehousing those in need from motels and shelters into permanent homes. Tragically, many working-poor families in Orange County meet a variety of complex housing barriers, including high rental deposits, poor credit, and eviction history. We provide rental deposit assistance, short-term rental subsidy, utility assistance, referrals to supplemental resources, budgeting and financial coaching, intensive case management for students and their parents, transportation support, and food and hygiene items.
Take the success story of the Morales family as an example. When the family of six came to Project Hope Alliance, they had been struggling with homelessness for six years, "doubling up" with another family in a shared apartment housing 12 people. A work-related injury had cost the father his job, and even with disability income, the family could not afford rent. Sharing a living space with another family helped, but the children's educations severely suffered. We walked beside the family, rapidly rehousing them through our Family Stability Program and supplementing all four kids' educations. On September 4, 2015, the Morales family ended homelessness after six trying years.
When Johnson asks readers to not forget about California's homeless children, we applaud him, and we promise, we won't.