Within the walls of Berkeley High School, there are hidden stories of chronic homelessness. There are hundreds of homeless youth in Berkeley, but you certainly can't tell by looking at them. They don't "look" homeless. They look like the hundreds of other students grappling with the challenges of school each day, but their struggle is a desperate one. Failure can make all the difference between a life of meaning and fulfillment, and one of utter despair.
These homeless youth find little respite from a life of uncertainty and unease, but there is one place where they can gather and freely share their stories. The office of Sophina Jones, a counselor with the Berkley Unified School District's McKinney-Vento program, provides the sanctuary and safety they crave.
"This is where they feel safe," Jones said. "This is where they come when they know that somebody is going through something like they are." Jones herself was a victim of homelessness, but she persisted despite the setbacks and is now a source of inspiration to the students she counsels.
Homelessness not only has a face, it also has a cost. Keeping focused on education is hard for these students. They are not only homeless, they are also poor, disconnected, tired, frustrated, ashamed, and very often alone, having had to flee abusive homes and traverse life alone.
But those who have parents with them are not spared the trauma. The instability of homelessness leaves them constantly tired, and many can't concentrate during classes. School becomes incidental.
For those who have always had the comfort of a warm bed each night and more than enough food, the situation is hard to imagine and even harder to understand. "Nothing about it makes sense, that there are as many as 400 youth on any given day struggling with homelessness here," said Sally Hindman, a community activist working with the homeless population in the city.
"When they leave here, they don't have a constant—they may not have a meal tonight," Jones said. "It seeps into the quality of their schooling, where they're not focusing at all. They don't have anything to feel like they're fighting for." But if their lives are ever going to be better, they have to keep on fighting, and they must somehow understand that others have made it, so they can too.