NAM EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced with support from a New America Media reporting fellowship on children in poverty in California, and is part two of a three part series exploring youth homelessness and education.

FRESNO — When Daniella Valencia relaxes on the grass in front of the library at California State University, Fresno, she appears to be a typical college student.

Daniella, 20, a second-year student majoring in Sociology with a minor in Urbanization, has strawberry blonde hair, a bright smile and an optimistic attitude. She lives with a friend from church in an apartment not far from campus, paying her own rent and utilities.

But prior to December, she lived at a Transitional Living Center (TLC) operated by the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, which provides housing services to homeless youth aged 18-24.

Having left behind the substance abuse and instability that characterized the environment of her two previous homes, Daniella was just looking for a place where she could focus on her schoolwork and move toward a positive future.

“When I was 14 I realized that with my predicament, I wasn’t going to be successful in school or with anything,” Daniella said about her childhood. “I needed to move out [of my mom’s house.] I was going crazy.”

When Daniella left her family home years ago, she became an unaccompanied homeless youth — one of the many teenagers and young adults across the country who lack safe, stable housing, and who are not in the care of a parent or guardian.

She joined the 1.6 million to 2.8 million other youth who leave their homes each year, generally due to severe dysfunction in their families, such as abuse, neglect and other circumstances that put their health and safety at risk, according to a 2007 California Research Bureau study.

While the number of homeless youth in California is unknown, it is likely that 200,000 youth under age 18, and thousands of 18-24 year olds, are homeless for one or more days during a year, according to the state Homeless Youth Project.

For many unaccompanied youth, school provides a refuge from the instability and chaos of their lives, said Diana Bowman, program director of the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina, Greenboro’s SERVE Center.

Many unaccompanied youth, she said, “are in survival mode, and that poses great challenges.” Still, she said, “in many or most cases, these are kids that really want to be in school.  They love the normalcy, they love the stability – it’s the one constant, safe, stable place in their lives, in this period of time that is very tumultuous.”

But homeless youth face barriers to achieving an education in Fresno Unified School District, which serves the second highest number of homeless youth in California, after Los Angeles.  Only 60 percent of homeless students attending Fresno Unified graduated last year.

Nationally, the numbers are hardly better, with 38 percent of the total U.S. homeless population having less than a high school degree by age 18, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

But Daniella, it seems, has beat the odds.

She remembers growing up around substance abuse — a factor that she said has strengthened her ability to “just say no,” and pursue a positive course in life. “Because of my family history, I hate to be around drugs,” she said. “I know what kinds of chaos they bring.”

As a freshman at Fresno High School, she was getting F’s and ditching school, but also taking on responsibilities usually reserved for those beyond her age and life experience.

“I was being the mom,” said Daniella. “I had to watch my brother and sister, it was hard cleaning the house when nobody was cooperating… I [also] needed to focus on school.”

Feeling helpless and hopeless, Daniella decided to move into a friend’s house. But things weren’t any better at her new home.

“I went from one unstable family to another,” she said. “It was the same scene, just different people and different problems.”

Focusing on her studies at Fresno High did not become easier, either. The family Daniella was living with lacked stability, and they moved around constantly.

“I’ve probably lived on every side of town,” she said, “and I always found a way to school.”

There was one bright spot during those days of turmoil: Daniella found a supportive community at Legacy Christian Church, and the lessons she learned there, she said, gave her the strength to succeed in high school and beyond.

“[I learned] how to keep an open heart and mind for my loved ones,” she said.

Despite her constant moving around, Daniella never considered transferring to a school closer to her place of residence, because she didn’t “want to go through the trouble of changing schools every time I move.”

She also never declared herself homeless, even though by doing so, she could have accessed resources, like bus tokens to cover the cost of her transportation to school.

She remembers thinking to herself: “If I don’t want to get [placed] into the [foster care] system, I have to avoid doing anything wrong… It just made more sense to stay where I’m at and do the best that I can, so I could just hurry up and get out of high school and do what I have to do,” she said.

Daniella enrolled in one of the TLC housing programs during her senior year of high school.

She graduated from Fresno High in 2009, and continued living at the center throughout her first year and a half of college.

The three living centers run by TLC have a total of 75 beds, and an estimated 105 youth rely on their services each year.

While at the center, Daniella was kept busy with chores and meetings with caseworkers. She was also required to attend various workshops that focused on safe sex, independent living, and how to maintain good health, the whole point of which was to help her become independent and ease her transition into adulthood.

“It’s very structured,” said Daniella. “There are a lot of rules. If you are the type of person who likes to fight rules and structure, it wouldn’t be for you.”

Daniella recalled how conversations with her case manager kept her on a steady path, helping her deal with her frustrations stemming from family and school problems.

“I guess you could say it helped me stay sane,” Daniella said in a joking tone.

Although the Transitional Living Center provided her with a stable, structured place to live, Daniella said it still didn’t truly feel like home.

“It was really helpful, but… I knew I would be leaving anyways,” Daniella said, as she strolled through the Fresno State campus on a recent Tuesday afternoon. She wore a black and white plaid jacket, given to her by the Transitional Living Center. Her favorite belt — black, with the white letters: DRUG FREE — held up her light-colored jeans.

Daniella said that nowadays she rarely thinks about finding a “real” home, but said she “can’t wait until I get married, because I think it will feel more stable.”

Although Daniella will be the first in her family to graduate from college, she said it hasn’t set in yet. “I just want to be out there, doing positive things, filling my life up with positive people,” said Daniella. She plans to join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps after college.

When asked why she prioritized education, Daniella responded: “I want to exceed my opportunities. I want to live life to the fullest.”

Marcus Vega writes for The kNOw Youth Media.

oung and Homeless (Part III): Risking It All, For an Education

Vida en el Valle / New America Media, News Feature, Rebecca Plevin, Posted: May 23, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced with support from a New America Media fellowship to report on children in poverty in California, and is part three of a three-part series on youth homelessness and education.

FRESNO — When he was just 14 years old, Antonio Magaña made the toughest decision of his young life. Antonio, who was born in Visalia, Calif., decided to leave his mother and two younger siblings in Colima, México, and return to the United States — alone — to enroll in high school.

The choice, he said, was motivated by one goal: To earn an education, so he, his Mexican mother and his U.S.-born siblings could have a future in California.

“I came here just for that — so I could offer me and her and my siblings a better future,” said Antonio, now 17, as he sat on a tree-shaded bench on the Roosevelt High School campus one Thursday afternoon in March.

The decision, though, placed Antonio on a trajectory toward youth homelessness. Since arriving in California three years ago, Antonio has bounced through the homes of five relatives, and attended three high schools.

“I have been around a lot,” he said, as he listed the various places he has lived.

“There were times when I thought I should just go back to México, but I didn’t. Thank God, I didn’t… I’m really this close to graduating.”

As he couch-surfed from one relative’s home to another, Antonio became one of the approximately 2,400 homeless students in Fresno Unified School District who lack a fixed, regular, stable, and adequate nighttime residence. In Fresno Unified — the district with the second highest number of homeless students in the state — about 60 percent of homeless youth are Latino.

Antonio initially might not seem to fit the traditional definition of homeless: He was not sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in motels, like some other homeless students.

Still, he qualifies for support through the school district’s Project ACCESS — which assists homeless students with enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school — because he does not have a stable residence. For more than three years, he has not had a home to call his own, a family to depend on, or a mother to encourage him to do his homework each night.

Yet hardly any of that has held Antonio back, or diminished his dream of achieving an education and providing a brighter future for his family.

“I’m always optimistic,” he said. “I never like looking at the negatives. I’ve always been like that — that’s what keeps me motivated.”

Growing up, Antonio attended elementary school in Tulare and Fresno. When he was 11, his mother, who was undocumented, moved Antonio and his two younger siblings back to Colima, México, so she could care for her ill father.

Antonio attended middle school in México, but knew his mother, who worked in the fields, could not afford to send him to high school there. The cost of attending high school in México, plus purchasing books, would be cost-prohibitive for his family, he said.

“I had seen the life we had [in Mexico], and it was hard,” he said. “There were points where I wanted to drop out of school and work in the fields, too, to help her.”

Antonio, who proudly calls himself a “mama’s boy,” decided to leave his mother and siblings behind in México and return alone to the U.S. to pursue his high school diploma.

“I told her, either I drop [out of school] and I work, or I go to the United States where I could go [to school] for free. The money you’re going to spend on me you don’t have to, and I can just be over there on my own.”

“I didn’t want to leave my mom,” said Antonio. “It was hard, but I also did it for her.”

So Antonio returned to California at age 14.

He lived with multiple relatives upon arriving first in Los Angeles, before moving to Tulare where he lived with his aunt. He eventually came to Fresno to live with another aunt, but now lives with yet another aunt and uncle in Fresno.

During that time, he attended high school for two months in Los Angeles, two months in Fresno, and a handful of months in Tulare. He has now been at Roosevelt High School, back in Fresno, for two years.

He only sees his mother and two siblings, now ages 9 and 14, when he returns to Mexico during summer vacations. On his visits, he is careful not to discuss his unstable living situation too often.

“I didn’t even know this,” responded Antonio’s new girlfriend, 17-year-old Monse Talamante, as she heard him describe the various places he has lived.

Despite the instability of constantly changing schools and homes, and the emotional pain of speaking with his mother via telephone just once a week, Antonio has managed to achieve a 3.3 GPA at Roosevelt.

He is enrolled in the school’s IRS Academy, a business education program, and through the academy, he secured a part-time job at the Internal Revenue Service this spring. He is vice president of the senior class of the IRS Academy, and is also involved in the school’s Californians for Justice club and the Youth Leadership Academy.

He expects to graduate from Roosevelt High School this spring, wearing a cap, gown and class ring purchased for him by Project ACCESS.

Already having been accepted for admission to California State University, Fresno, Antonio is still waiting to hear back from Fresno Pacific University. He hopes to double major in business and accounting, and criminal justice.

Antonio’s drive to be successful in school, he said, comes straight from his mother. “I’m shaped by my mom,” he said. “She always cared about me going to school.”

Academic accomplishments will mean little to Antonio, though, if he cannot bring his siblings, and eventually his mother, back to California. He hopes his younger brother returns to California next year, and when he is 21, said Antonio, he intends to help his mother return to the U.S. legally.

“I just need to fix my mom’s papers, and then we will be reunited,” he said.

“I came to get a good education here, for a better future. I have more [of a] future here than I do in México.” is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.