Orange County's Secret
A janitor adjusts her sweater and tucks her dark curls behind her ear. She pushes the broom over the cool, linoleum floor to the growing pile of glitter, construction paper scraps, dirt, and a sticker…those darn stickers that get stuck to the floor. The school is eerily quiet after the students go home. She kneels down using her fingers to pick the sticker off of the floor. She stands up, tosses the sticker in the trash, brushes her hands on her pants, and then she sees him. The boy. The one she noticed hovering in the cafeteria at lunchtime today, near the trash cans. He had taken an unopened bag of chips and an apple from the lunch tray and stuffed it into his own lunch box.
“Dinner,” she had thought to herself.
And now here he was, sitting in the hallway long after dismissal.
“You don’t want to head home?” she asks.
The boy hesitates for a moment. “I don’t…well, my parents are running late.” She sees the opened bag of chips sitting next to him, and the apple bitten down to the core.
He’s holding back, but she knows the truth.1
The truth is that while Orange County, California, is most known for Disneyland, pristine Pacific coast beaches, and extreme wealth—like the kind displayed on once-popular shows like The O.C. and Laguna Beach—there is another reality. Hidden behind the veil of Teslas and designer-clad beach-going teenagers is one of Orange County’s best-kept secrets:
28,000 homeless children
When you ask someone to describe “homelessness,” they might picture a man living in a makeshift house underneath a bridge or a woman standing at an intersection holding a hand-made sign. But those are the more visible signs of homelessness, often seen in dense or urban areas.
In reality, homelessness has many faces—sometimes not the ones you'd most expect.
According to a report by NPR, to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Orange County, a person needs to earn at least $27 per hour, or a little over $50,000 annually.2
Yet, the median hourly wage in Orange County is $19.12.3 Add in security deposits and putting down two months rent, and the cost of getting into a home adds up quickly.
It’s no surprise then that Orange County has a higher average of homeless or housing-insecure students than the state of California (4.4%). More than a quarter of Orange County's youngest children live in poverty.4 And unfortunately, the problem is growing. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of homeless students in Orange County jumped 236%. And that only accounts for the children that researchers know about. Homelessness is incredibly hard to track, so experts believe that these numbers may be much higher.
“Nobody grows up wanting to be homeless." – Principal Boulton, Newport Harbor High School
Homelessness presents many barriers and difficulties for young people, especially when it comes to education. On average, students experiencing homelessness are two school years behind. They 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.
Also in comparison to their housed peers, youth struggling with homelessness are 50% more likely to perform below grade level in both reading and spelling, and 150% more likely to perform below grade level in math.
Perhaps the most startling statistic: 95% of homeless youth don’t finish high school.
But education also provides the opportunity to break the cycle of homelessness, in more ways than language arts, math, and science. When you’re living a life that is unpredictable and you don’t know where you will lay your head at night, school becomes the most consistent, familiar place in your life.
It can be a lifeline.
The Invisible Truth
Jennifer Friend remembers clearly the day her teacher held up her essay in front of the class.
“This,” the teacher said, “is an example of someone who doesn’t care.” The essay she held up had holes poked into the paper. Friend remembers the feelings of embarrassment, the shame…and mostly wishing that this incident wouldn’t reveal her secret.
The truth was Friend had written the essay on her carpeted hotel floor—where her family had been sleeping—and her pencil kept poking through the paper. The other truth was, she cared deeply about her essay assignment, but she couldn’t explain why she had holes in her paper without revealing one of her biggest childhood secrets. Her family was homeless.
“As a child experiencing homelessness, you exist in this world you can’t fully participate in,” said Friend.
Today, Friend is an attorney and the President and CEO of Project Hope Alliance—an organization breaking the cycle of homelessness through rapid re-housing and education—changing both present circumstances and the future.
Friend knows this issue personally. She was homeless off and on from seventh grade to high school graduation. Her situation swung from living in middle-class neighborhoods to living in a motel.
“We were economically schizophrenic,” said Friend. “But I was fortunate to have a mom and dad who loved us.”
Still, she remembers her father telling her not to tell anyone about their homelessness or "your friends might not like you anymore.”
That’s the narrative facing many students experiencing homelessness today. They are invisible. Other people—be it teachers, friends, coaches, even family—may not know their situations. Many students feed this narrative too—they tell themselves invisible is better, so they don’t have to deal with the stigma that comes with homelessness.
“You are actively working to remain invisible, while secretly hoping someone will see you,” said Friend.
Homelessness is a very isolating experience. Kids go about their day, doing all of the typical things, but often in a shadow of hopelessness that most of us fail to see.
Students are afraid they may be stigmatized or bullied. Parents are afraid their children may be placed into foster care. According to a report by Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates, “While seven in ten liaisons (69 percent) believe their schools are doing a good job identifying homeless youth, they also point to major barriers to identification and express concern that they are ‘missing’ many homeless students in their communities.”5
The Civic Enterprises report interviewed one student who said:
“I don’t want to tell nobody, I don’t. I learned that one time from telling the school that I was homeless and it went basically viral. And I didn’t like it because you know how school kids are, they want to get all idiotic and say little things, and they find out some little information and then it’s like ‘oh, he’s homeless’ and this and that...I want to tell my case manager…but I don’t want anybody feeling pity or sorrowful for me because I’m homeless.”
Still, these young people are like any others. They have big dreams. They want to be successful. But they face big challenges.
Disrupting the Cycle
Big challenges require big solutions. Project Hope Alliance addresses homelessness in a holistic and long-term way, disrupting the cycle of homelessness on two different fronts—family stability and education.
Through the Family Stability Program, Project Hope Alliance walks beside families to help them achieve financial independence in two years. They do this through rental deposit assistance, short-term rental subsidies, budgeting and financial coaching, intensive case management, transportation support, among many other things.
Project Hope Alliance supports more than 400 children attending 91 different schools in 31 cities throughout Orange County.
While the Family Stability Program works to rapidly re-house families and promote financial independence, the Education Program moves students along a continuum of programs designed to help them excel in education, with a longer-term goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness.
The beauty of the Education Program is that each stage is focused on the child, designed to meet the child exactly where he or she is psychologically and developmentally.
Over the past five years, Project Hope Alliance has moved more than 800 children and parents out of homelessness.
When a child is in grades K-3, he is still very much under the influence and guidance of his parents. So meeting his educational needs also must begin with helping his family meet their basic needs. The Bright Start program provides a structured, research-based learning curriculum, pairs him with a volunteer mentor, and empowers his family through teaching and learning opportunities. His parents are a critical part of this program, so each month the program hosts monthly dinners for his parents. Each family is assigned a coordinator and learning coach who are readily available for both academic and technical support.
“Our goal is to have each child understand how much they matter in this world, and to deeply appreciate how much they have to offer to the experience of those around them,” explained Friend.
After third grade, students participate in the Soaring to Success program. It mirrors the Bright Start program, but adds a component of collaborative teacher engagement. An education program manager works with the student, parents, and classroom teachers to ensure that the student is meeting benchmarks, and to adjust education plans if necessary.
Academic success is not the only focus, though, and the Art4Healing program offers opportunities for students to pursue creativity, self-expression, relaxation and restoration in a stress-free environment. These therapeutic after-school programs help provide healing from the trauma that often accompanies homelessness.
“We know that homelessness in early childhood can lead to struggles with academic performance, classroom engagement, and social skills in elementary school. We also know that with the support of our community, children can overcome these obstacles.”
Jennifer Friend, CEO, Project Hope Alliance
And the hope is that with the support they need, with someone there to walk alongside them, kids will not only succeed, but also be seen… be seen for who they are, no longer hidden in plain sight, like mere shadows in the hallways.
A Culture Shift
The hallways of Newport Harbor High School may look like a typical school. But something is happening behind the scenes—something that is a “first” for a school in California, and possibly the nation.
Newport Harbor High School is home to Project Hope Alliance’s Promotor Pathway program, which pairs youth experiencing homelessness between the ages of 14 and 24 with an experienced promotor, who guides and supports the teen or young adult over an extended period of time. The Promotor Pathway program exists through a partnership with Newport-Mesa Unified School District. And it’s the first school district to adopt such a program.
These promotors are full-time highly-qualified staff, often with graduate degrees in counseling or public health, who work directly in the school and in close partnership with teachers, staff and administration.
“We start by assuming all things are possible.” —Jennifer Friend
Where primary school children are very much under the influence of their parents, middle and high school students are gaining independence. Students at this age, especially those in high school, are a lot more self-sufficient, so the interactions with supporting adults change. Promotors often act as a parent, offering advice and counsel. In situations where students may call mom and dad, these students have an option to call their promotor.
“Our relationship varies by student,” said Sandra Valdes, a promotor who holds a masters degree in Public Health. “In many cases, I see myself more as an influential aunt.”
Promotors are assigned up to 25 students. They serve as a mentor, an advocate, and a liaison for the students, among other things. They are available to the students whenever they need them.
This could be taking a student to get a driver’s license, so he or she can work and save for college. It could be helping a student fill out FAFSA forms. It could be taking students on field trips to go bowling or see a play, so students can see what life is like outside of homelessness.
Because the Promotor Pathways program supports students up to ages 24 (the average age a person graduates from college), they even mentor them beyond high school graduation.
“We are trying to end the cycle of homelessness, so the only way we can measure against that is to follow through with these students until they are adults,” said Friend.
The Promotor Pathway program is only two years old, but already it is seeing great success. Since the launch of the program, two students have graduated college, six seniors are seeking higher education, vocational studies, or employment, and 67% experienced a decreased need for housing at six months.
“The relationship is what will break the cycle of homelessness. Students need to have someone in their corner,” said Valdes. “That’s what Promotors provide.”
“We start by assuming all things are possible,” said Friend.
That assumption is not only changing the lives of students experiencing homelessness, but it is changing the culture at Newport Harbor High School (NHHS).
"It has brought to our entire educational community a broader understanding of homelessness, and how it affects students, schools, community, and society as a whole," said NHHS Principal Sean Boulton.
“Our teachers, parents, and students are shocked at the number of students who are housing insecure. At this school where privilege comes without a second thought, it gave everyone an opportunity to pause and reflect.”
But the school community is doing more than reflection. Individuals are stepping up and asking, “how can I help? What can I do to make a difference?”
"Real change requires big commitment, and our kids are worth the investment." — Project Hope Alliance
Friend described the impact this way, "Project Hope Alliance is creating a model of care that is expanding throughout the community."
And for teachers and school administrators, it means more than hope—it means support, tools and much-needed human resources.
“Promotor Pathway eliminates obstacles and moves families back on track. Every school should have this program,” said Boulton.
From Surviving to Thriving
“At some point, I thought I wasn’t going to make it… I wasn’t going to graduate.”
John recalls his strong desire to quit school just a couple of months into his senior year in September 2016. He was rapidly falling behind in class; homework and life overall were hard. He remembers feeling like there was no point to keep pushing to finish, except for a persistent voice in his head that said, "I really want to graduate." When his stepfather lost his job, John's family had no choice but to double up with his oldest brother's family. This meant six people cramming their lives into a two-bedroom condominium. Sharing the living room with his brother, John slept on the couch. His mom and stepdad worked hard, but their situation failed to improve—especially when they were forced to move again with the landlord's decision to sell.
John felt the immense weight of his family's stress, and he started missing classes. The thought of moving to another city diminished his motivation to excel in school. His grades were low, his reading skills sank below senior level, and his overall academic picture was not promising.
"We can and will break the cycle of homelessness." — Project Hope Alliance
While John worried about his family's financial situation, his absenteeism did not go unnoticed at school. Sandra Valdez, a promotor at NHHS, helped enroll him in the Promotor Pathway Program. Project Hope Alliance identified a need for basic items that would make an immediate difference: food, hygiene products, and cleaning supplies. Valdez supported John academically, working directly with him as a tutor and providing responsive guidance. She also worked closely with his teachers, his counselor, and school staff to address the youth's academic needs.
Additionally, the organization provided computer access to help John complete his assignments on time. John's grades quickly began to recover, his self-esteem improved, and he maintained consistent attendance.6
On June 22, 2017, John graduated from Newport Harbor High School.
This is the difference a helping hand can make.
Sometimes a helping hand can come from an unexpected place. And it’s often the less visible members of the school—the ones who stay behind the scenes—who are the most knowledgeable about what students are experiencing homelessness. The janitors see what children are sleeping at the school at night. The cafeteria workers see which students are taking scraps. The nurses see which students lack adequate medical care.
Project Hope Alliance is building a community of people who all learn to see one another, to recognize the needs around them and look for ways to meet those needs—partnering with teachers and administrators, custodial and cafeteria staff, alike, with parents and students, both homeless and housed.
One child at a time... One school at a time... One community at a time... Project Hope Alliance is restoring hope, transforming lives and helping make the invisible visible.
1 This account is a fictional representation of true events.
2 California's Orange County Struggles to Combat Growing Homelessness, Opoiod Crisis. All Things Considered, NPR. September 13, 2017.
3 OC Community Indicators 2017. Orange County Community Foundation. 2017.
4 More than a Quarter of Orange County's Youngest Kids Live in Poverty. Orange County Register. February 3, 2017.
5 Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America's Public Schools. America's Promise Alliance. 2017.
6 Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.