When I first met James, in the spring of 2012, he was living with his mother and two younger siblings in a room at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’s Skid Row.
In a room full of excited and hyper kids, James immediately stood out from the other kids, with his soft-spoken air of intelligence and protective nature towards his siblings.
After a lengthy phone conversation with “Mondays at the Mission” founder Christopher Kai, I was asked, at the last moment, to share my story with teens in residence at the shelter: my mother and I were homeless for nearly six years, until I was removed to foster care. Since those darker days, I’ve managed to get both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and become a productive member of society. At the end, I emphasized my message of hope, and explained that the kids shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help when they needed it. I offered my email address to the group, and class was dismissed.
James emailed me before I’d even made it home. He explained his fears: he knew he was smart enough to go to college, he knew he wanted to go to college, and he knew he needed to go to college to change his life. He just had no idea how to do it. I checked his grades and they were quite good despite having attended multiple high schools. There was no doubt the kid was a smart one, even if his written words weren’t as strong as his spoken ones. Having helped a younger cousin navigate the college application process the year before, I agreed to help James get ready.
Helping James was a multi-layered endeavor: his writing needed work, but he also needed test prep. We got him a few study guides for the SAT and ACT. When his computer crashed, a friend offered to fix it for free. We got him the school supplies he needed, like a scientific calculator. He did every writing exercise I threw his way. He started doing volunteer work. We ate a lot of bacon, and he listened to every criticism and piece of advice I gave him. He told me more about himself through both conversation and his writing exercises, and my first instincts about this kid were proved true: he’d been through a lot, but he wanted so much better for himself, and had the potential to accomplish his goals, with a little help.
When his mother was accepted into transitional housing, James and his family left the shelter and moved to a one bedroom apartment in San Pedro, where he started at yet another high school. As he started senior year in a school where he knew no one, he juggled test prep and applications, but pushed through and graduated on-time, in June 2013. He also managed to get into nine great schools, including his dream school, Howard University in Washington, DC, where he plans to major in Physics.
After much contemplation, James decided to go to Howard, even though it was a bit more than he cared to spend. Though he received over $20,000 in grants and scholarships, James decided to take a gamble on himself, like I once did, and chose to finance part of his education with student loans.
Unfortunately, though his Stafford loans were approved to the maximum amounts, the remaining $14,000 needed was offered as Parent/Plus loans, which were declined due to his family’s poverty, his mother’s negative credit, and his own blank credit report. James found out in early July, but was unable to get through to the Howard financial aid office for three weeks. Another good friend, an HU alum, actually went to the University and spoke with a Financial Aid staffer, and if we can’t find an amenable lender OR raise the money, James simply won’t be able to attend Howard this fall.
We are working with Howard’s financial aid office to reclassify him as an independent, and pulling out every stop we can find, in order to get more money for him and lower that number he has to borrow. But make no mistake: James isn’t looking for a handout. He’s looking for a chance.
Personally, being able to take out loans was the great equalizer when it came to my chances of upward mobility: the loans allowed me to attend the University of Southern California, where I was able to take classes alongside students whose parents were able to just write checks for their tuition! Though the interest rates are awful, and it sometimes feels as though I’m being punished for being born into poverty, it’s undeniable: thanks to my education, being homeless is far in the distant past.
So here’s our little blog. We thank you for reading…and welcome your suggestions, shares, and donations.
Jessica (and James)