For Los Angeles Students who are Homeless, a School Provides Hope

Vicente Carlos reflects on his past in a college readiness class in East Los Angeles. Photos: Mariah Castañeda

In Los Angeles County, 63,000 students are considered homeless this year. Homeless youths are defined as “individuals that lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” by the California Department of Education. This can include young people that sleep in cars, motels or shelters.

Many students who are homeless have faced abuse, neglect, abandonment or family conflict.

Los Angeles Communities Advocating for Unity, Social Justice and Action YouthBuild, or LA CAUSA, is a project based learning school in East Los Angeles that provides a high school diploma program for “historically disenfranchised” Los Angeles residents ages 16-24. Here are the stories of three formerly homeless students who are enrolled in the program:

 

Vicente Carlos

Vicente Carlos, 23, is a LA CAUSA junior. As a teen, he struggled with anxiety and depression, and felt he didn’t have anyone to turn to help him. Carlos began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to numb the emotional pain he felt.

When he turned 18, during his 11th grade year, his mother kicked him out of their home in East Los Angeles. Carlos took to living on the streets and later found shelter in transitional housing in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood. As a requirement of living there, he had to stop using drugs and alcohol.

Carlos said he asked himself at the time, “Where do I go from here?”

Carlos reunited his mother and returned to living with her. Soon after, he enrolled in the LA CAUSA program.

Carlos now practices healthy ways of coping with his anxiety, including hiking and photography. As a student, Carlos is close to graduating and recently attended a college readiness class. He hopes to attend CSU San Diego, CSU Humboldt or Scripps College to study oceanography or marine biology.

 

Alexandra Ramirez

Alexandra Ramirez, 21, was kicked out of her Texas home at age 13 after a conflict with her mother. For the next three years, Ramirez lived in Texas with her 17-year-old boyfriend, who was abusive. During this time, she didn’t attend school.

Young and naïve, Ramirez said that her boyfriend convinced her to commit acts of burglary with him. “He dragged me into a life of crime,” she said.

At 16, Ramirez reenrolled in school after a run in with law enforcement forced her to return home with her mother. She was put back in school and was placed in the ninth grade, where she struggled to keep up with her classmates.

During this time, Ramirez took anger management courses and learned about dating abuse.

“My mind started to expand,” Ramirez said, as she realized, “I didn’t want to be like this my whole life.”

But life was also difficult at home. Ramirez’s immigrant mother worked two jobs and rarely had time to spend with her. When she was 17, Ramirez went back to living with her former boyfriend and again dropped out of school.

That’s when she realized she needed to break the cycle of the abusive relationship. This time Ramirez saw the signs of abuse, left her boyfriend and tried to live independently at age 18. She struggled to make ends meet as a teen housekeeper and fell into alcoholism and depression.

“I couldn’t find myself at the time,” she said.

Ramirez’s mother contacted her and told her she was moving to Los Angeles and wanted Ramirez to join her. Ramirez agreed, wanting a fresh start.

Now, Ramirez is nearing graduation at LA CAUSA and is taking college courses at East Los Angeles College. She is studying to be an electronic engineer. She has a nine-year plan that includes having a career by age 25 and purchasing a home by 30.

 

Cris Bravo

Cristina “Cris” Bravo, 20, is 24 units away from graduating from the LA CAUSA program. The writer, poet and local actor has come a long way since entering the school four years ago.

As a queer teen, Bravo had a strained relationship with her parents. She drifted from school to school, because her parents hoped that one would “set her straight,” she said.

At 16, Bravo enrolled in LA CAUSA. Before that, she had attended five other programs, including a job-training school and a continuation school.

That same year Bravo’s parents found out about her sexuality and family relations became tenser. “I started dressing like a guy,” Bravo said, adding that she is still figuring out her identity but prefers the pronoun “she” for now.

“I feel like they were embarrassed,” Bravo said of her family. Her parents ripped her men’s clothes.

Cris Bravo shows her gratitude journal.

The road to graduation has not been easy. Bravo’s parents temporarily threw her out of their home at age 19, because they didn’t want to accept how she identified herself.

“They didn’t accept me, so it was really hard to communicate with them,” she said.

Bravo admits to making mistakes as a young teen but claims to have grown up while at LA CAUSA, where she felt accepted and encouraged by teachers. She keeps a gratitude journal in her phone. Bravo is writing her first book and hopes to be a movie director someday.

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