Feature: No Place to Call Home: Daniela Gomez
After junior Daniela Gomez’ mom lost her job during Daniela’s freshman year, they were unable to continue making payments on their mortgage, and were soon evicted from their home. For the next two years Daniela and her mom were homeless, moving between the houses of friends and family without ever having a stable living situation.
Unfortunately, Daniela is not the only victim of homelessness at M-A. There are 20 reported cases, and likely many others that are unidentified. In addition to these 20 homeless students, over 40% of M-A’s student population falls under the federal poverty line for a family of four.
The district-wide definition of homelessness encompasses four scenarios: students who no longer live in the home they used to, students who don’t live in any home, and students who lost, or were evicted from, their home and now live with other friends or family.
Many of these cases extend beyond the traditional definition of homelessness because, “very few young people aren’t savvy enough to find a place at a friends house for at least a couple of nights… young people are much more resilient [than adults], so they find a place to stay,” said Miki Cristerna, director of M-A’s Support Center.
For Gomez’ family, couch-hopping became a harsh reality when her mom lost her job and, consequently, their East Palo Alto home, where they had been living for eleven years. She and her mom were forced to move in with her aunt, unable to find any affordable housing.
“My mom didn’t have enough money to buy or to rent a 3-bedroom house, not even a 2-bedroom because it was too expensive. And we couldn’t find any [open] studios either. We looked everyday, we asked everybody, but we couldn’t find anything,” Gomez recalled.
They lived with her aunt for a while before moving into the house of a friend who was going to be out of the country. However, when the friend returned, they found it was too difficult to continue living there because the house became too crowded.
After moving back in with her aunt, the hardships for the Gomez family began to extend further beyond purely financial. Gomez’ only true companion, her mother and “best friend,” went through severe medical challenges during that time. Her mom suffered from severely high blood pressure, and in the midst of a stressful day, she sat down and suddenly had a stroke.
“We have each other and that was all our hope, our happiness,” remembered Gomez tearfully, “and for a second, I thought I would lose my best friend.”
The independence Daniela developed with her mom gone became useful after her return home, as she shifted her focus to care-taking, sometimes even skipping school or arriving late. She started failing her classes, and acquired an automatic fail in her first period due to absences, most of which were merely her extreme tardiness.
However, after telling her first period teacher, Ms. Solomon, about her situation, things at school began to improve. She had a meeting with her mom and all of her teachers, and “tried to rush everything and do as much as [she] could and raised [her] grades by a letter” by the end of the semester, passing all of her classes except first period.
She continued focusing on her mom and their financial situation as well, and began giving her mom money she earned at occasional babysitting jobs to help cover extra medical expenses that Medi-Cal did not. Her sister soon got a 1-bedroom apartment in Redwood City, where she allowed them to stay for 5 months. During that time, her mom fully recovered and was able to get a job at a company called Renaissance, which helps her find teaching positions at local places around the bay.
After her sister asked them to leave, Daniela and her mom moved to Hayward, where they were able to find a “more secure [living] position” in their own house.
While they are doing well, the struggle is not over yet for Gomez and her mom, who are struggling to pay not only their rent, but additional expenses for medical bills, storage space, a phone plan, and car insurance.
“We just stick to paying bills, and we have nothing else for the rest of the month,” Gomez explained, “we aren’t getting [monetary] help from anybody.”
Daniela, among other students, experienced the need for additional support outside her home, as her family would have never been able to pay for her lunch, school supplies, or the tutoring she needed to raise her grades.
M-A has successfully adapted to the population of homeless students at the school by establishing a variety of resources to help these students with their educational careers, accounting for some of the lack of monetary support these students get from home.
Once a student has been identified as homeless, they are automatically placed on the free lunch program, without filling out any paperwork.
“I also keep additional free food in the support center,” Cristerna added, “I even have fresh fruit for them!”
In order to provide a stable mode of transportation for these students who will not always live in a close vicinity to school, the district provides them with free bus passes, which include access to all of the SamTrans buses. In some cases, for people living an even greater distance from the school, the district will provide a Clipper Card for free access to trains.
Additionally, all homeless students have access to free after-school tutoring. However, this is the resource that the fewest students use, primarily because of the inconvenience of traveling to the district office.
The graduation rate is still typically lower for these students, in spite of access to these resources. The lack of a personal, permanent workspace continues to create problems regardless.
“A few of my students were living in a transitional shelter, so… they often did not know where they were going from week to week,” Cristerna explained.
This uncertainty prevents students from leaving their school supplies or projects in stable space, adding another obstacle to their academic careers. Gomez identified with this, as she lost her backpack during the move after she and her mom were evicted.
In addition, Cristerna mentioned, for some students whose families are living in shelters, “the fact that they [have] to drive somewhere new every week [takes] away a half an hour to an hour,” of schoolwork time. It is impossible for them to complete all of their homework “when they are spending half of their time in transit.”
Against all of these adversities, Gomez was able to take advantage of the resources provided for her. Though she will be transferring to a high school in Hayward, she plans to graduate on time next year.
Not only does she intend on finishing her high school career in the average four years, she plans to enroll in a two-year college and continue supporting her mom at home. There, she will save money to transfer to a four-year college where she hopes to earn a nursing degree.
Gomez’ educational success proves there is the possibility of success for homeless students at M-A. While these homeless students daily deal with hardships others don’t, Gomez’ remained optimistic throughout the process and serves as an example; by taking advantage of the support offered, any student can work to overcome adversities and create a better life for their family.
“I know it is hard being homeless and trying to do your schoolwork, but there are resources and so many programs here,” Gomez concludes. “Talk to your teachers because… they want to help you. They will get their paycheck whether you fail or pass, but they want you to pass, they want you to graduate.”