During Ashley Aquino's senior year of college, she and her siblings would walk for an hour and a half to school. Their family was facing financial trouble. Forced to leave their home in Buena Park, the kids spent their day at school, did their homework at West Anaheim Youth Center and McDonald's, and at night the family would couch-surf at relatives' homes–all while Aquino's parents scrambled to find affordable housing. The next day, another hour-and-a-half walk awaited Aquino and her siblings.
Through the tough times, the Aquinos remained committed to education, and non-profit organization Giving Children Hope–who had provided the family with food–heard about Ashley's story and wanted to contribute. Their solution: they set up a GoFundMe page to fund Ashley's first year at Cal State Fullerton with a goal of $7,000 to cover the school's $6,436 yearly tuition. They've just surpassed this goal, and now Aquino is pursuing a degree in Criminal Justice there. Today, the family is sharing a two-bedroom apartment with another family in Buena Park, and Ashley and her mother are looking for jobs.
"I was scared at the time because of my grades, but I did well during those months because I didn't want to let those obstacles get in the way," Ashley says. "I learned to be thankful for what I have and to work harder so my future family won't have to go through this."
But Aquino isn't the only student in Orange County who faced homelessness while pursuing her education. According to Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey released earlier this year, there are around 451 homeless households with children in the county along with an overall five percent increase in homelessness. Professor of Sociology Ed Clarke of Vanguard University, who has been working on an annual homeless population census in Costa Mesa since 2007, says he meets homeless students every semester and that that population is growing.
"Many students [who become homeless] don't even have access to, say, borrowed dollars and don't know what resources are available to them," he says. "That's one thing some community organizations have undertaken: helping them get assistance in things like documentation and filing. For that group of students, they're making a lot of sacrifices because they believe education will better their situation."
Dr. Clarke argues that these students' stories disprove the stereotype of homeless people being homeless because of drugs, alcohol, and violent tendencies. He says one of his students was homeless for 18 months and would couch-surf and sleep in his car. Another was kicked out of her home and received assistance from her friends' families. "Someone with a house doesn't just decide one day to live on the street," Dr. Clarke notes. "One of the things that might help the community is to understand how close most of us are to being forced into that kind of lifestyle. If I experienced their set of circumstances, I'm not sure that that wouldn't be me there."