At the age of 16, Luz Hernandez was living in a park in San Francisco after being abandoned by her father. She was eventually placed into foster care, but after aging out, she became homeless again and lived in a garage with no heat, running water or even a lock. She recalls her periods of homelessness as the darkest times in her young life. “I was moving from place to place every month. Being homeless not only affected my education but also me emotionally. I was alone.”
Hundreds of thousands of California students share Luz’s experience with homelessness, according to a new report released by researchers at UCLA. The report, titled “State of Crisis: Dismantling Student Homelessness in California”, reveals that almost 270,000 students in California’s K-12 schools were homeless in 2019. That’s an increase of 48 percent in a decade.
In addition, the report notes, one in every five students at a California Community College, one in every 10 at a California State University, and one in every 20 at the University of California are experiencing homelessness.
According to Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), figures like these show why the organization is prioritizing homeless students. “JBAY continues to address homelessness among college students with a wide range of new policies and practices. But we are also increasing our focus on homelessness among K-to-12 students. As this report shows, there is a lot of work ahead.”
Luz showed what is possible with the right support and lots of determination. She enrolled in the City College of San Francisco and qualified for permanent, affordable housing. “I was receiving a lot of support: money for my books, tutors and priority registration,” recalls Luz. “I went from having a 1.5 GPA to having a 3.5 GPA. Programs such as the Burton Book Fund make a big difference in the performance of students.”
Luz’s progress continued as she transferred to San Francisco State University and, after graduating, worked as an intern for JBAY. She credits JBAY for the important role it played in her journey to stability, both through the reforms it made to the foster care system and youth homelessness programs, as well as the hands-on support it provided. “As a child I dreamed of being a different person than my family members. I wanted to be a person with goals. Through all my struggles and sacrifices, I have taught myself the value of a good education so I can pursue my dreams. Despite all my struggles and challenges, I am an unstoppable person. I hope to transform the foster care system into a better place, for people like myself.”