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LA’s Homeless Students: What Keeps Them Going?

YOUNG LEARNERS IN JEOPARDY-In California, three percent of the state’s enrolled K-12 students or over 200,000 -- as well as a couple hundred thousand college students -- are living in cars, motels, shelters, on the street, or in crowded homes shared with other families. This is the largest number of homeless students in any state. Other states also have thousands of homeless high school and college students. 

Dante LeMar Flowal, 37 years old, was a homeless teenager and then homeless as a college student. His story reveals a lot about the struggles endured by homeless youth. He was born in California in a big African American family in Los Angeles. After the deaths of his grandfather on his father’s side and his grandmother on his mother’s side, there was turmoil in his family. 

“My mother had two brothers and one sister,” he says. His mother worked two jobs. “When she was in the home, she was either tired or frustrated and just didn’t want to deal with us. It was a lot of arguing and a lot of yelling. It was too much for me to deal with. I couldn’t understand why I was being treated this way. I eventually wound up running away…” He was fourteen years old. 

“In Lancaster during those years I started out with friends [moving] place to place, couch to couch, but my friends were teenagers as well, so you could only stay so long without their parents raising questions or concerns. From there I went to the streets, but you don’t really stay on the streets in Lancaster because there are so many abandoned homes,” he said. Often these are brand new homes. “So you get in, you stay the night, and you leave in the morning. You find another home.”

“You get a little lost, confused, don’t really know where go, who to turn to. You don’t want to ask anyone for help because any time you ask someone for help, they look at you kind of funny, especially at someone like me. I was clean, well-dressed. They couldn’t understand I was in the situation I was in. So I just pretty much tried to make it on my own. It was very tough.”

“It got very cold. I remember one night I tried to stay in the desert. …I pop[ped] up my tent, and it was freeezzzzzing. It was miserable. I couldn’t sleep all night. At the first sunlight, I got myself [up and] opened the tent to leave. I saw a thin layer of ice hovering above the ground—it was literally flowing—but it was thin all across the desert landscape. I knew I never would be sleeping in the desert again.” 

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987, and a California state law passed in 2015 both require schools to provide services for homeless students such as school supplies, extra tutoring, and transportation to school with federal grants to provide money for these services. Santa Maria-Bonita in Central California is one of the 61 districts statewide out of 1025 school districts to win a grant to serve homeless students. Santa Maria-Bonita uses its $170,000 grant to provide services specially tailored to its 5,272 homeless students. A second nonprofit, Central Coast Future Leaders, teaches about “college admissions, financial aid, and choosing a career, and tour[s] [of] nearby college campuses. For many, college dorms are the first place they’ve slept in their own bed, and the most stable, quiet living quarters they’ve experienced… These programs have been successful in propelling students out of poverty ….” 

Flowal had been a very smart, intelligent young child always at the head of his class but his Lancaster school district received no grant to help the homeless, so he got no help in dealing with his homelessness. He kept going to school until he was kicked out of high school sixteen and a half, and then was expelled from the Antelope Valley School District. 

He was sent to continuation school. “I didn’t feel like I was learning enough there,” he says. “I was on the high school level, but they were teaching on the 6th or 7th grade education level… I actually took my concerns to the principal and asked him if I could somehow work my way back into the regular school district. He said there’s no way I could get back into the regular school district because I was expelled. But what he can do is he could set me up to take this test. If I pass this test, I could go to the community college and take concurrent credits. So now my credits would count towards my high school diploma.” 

“I took the test. I passed with flying colors. I enrolled in community college. This was actually at 16 ½ when I enrolled in Antelope Valley Community College. I stayed there for about a semester.” Then he took a job going state to state selling all-purpose carpet cleaner. He was told he would make thousands of dollars, but only the bosses made money. After he was bit by a dog in El Paso, Texas, he was fired. 

Back in Lancaster he applied for a job that required a high school diploma. After talking to the Antelope Valley School District, he learned he had more than enough units to qualify as equivalent to a high school graduate. He also heard that H. B. Barnum, the first black man to be signed by Capital Records, also Aretha Franklin’s composer, was coming to Lancaster to hold a contest looking for new rappers. Flowal entered the contest but didn’t win. The crowd really liked his rapping, so after the contest he introduced himself to Barnum, telling the composer he was homeless at the time. 

Barnum said, “If you come to Hollywood, I’ll help you find a place to stay.” Flowal went alone. “His [Barum’s] secretary sent me down to the Winegart Center [for homeless adults] just downtown on the Skid Row area,” Flowal said. “I was a seventeen-year-old kid.” 

They took one look at Flowal and said, “You don’t belong down here. [We] know a place where you can go in Hollywood…” The Weingart Center sent him to the Covenant House, a shelter for youth ages 18-23, in Hollywood. At Covenant House they couldn’t admit him until he was eighteen, but they let him sleep on the floor every night, leave every morning, and return. On his 18th birthday they finally admitted him. He was in the program until the age of twenty-three. 

Covenant House had two bunk beds in a room, separated males and females, and had a cafeteria that served three meals a day. Flowal said, “But being Hollywood some of the men that were in my room [with the bunk beds] considered themselves females. That was something else I had to come to deal with, to understand. The staff did an assessment to what kind of personal development or training you might need? What kind of education you might need to succeed in the working world? I’ve seen them help people get their GED (a test if passed proves the student has high-school level academic skills).” 

“They also [had] a job placement facility directly across the street,” Flowal said. “So after breakfast you go there and they prep you for interviews. Teach you what to say and see that you are dressed appropriately. Once you have enough training, they send you out into the world to find a job. It’s a great program. It definitely saved me.” Since he had come to Hollywood as a rapper, he worked his “way into backstage passes and VIP red carpets until I got to a point that I realized that the industry wasn’t necessarily for me.”ed, “I have got to work to make it. That’s when I started working security full-time.” After the Covenant House put him in an apartment, he paid them “80% of my check, and they would in turn pay the rent and save that check until it was time for my next transition of the program. That’s when they gave me the rest of the money back. While I was there, I introduced myself to the neighbors and wound up meeting them.” He made friends with his neighbor Glen. 

Eventually he returned to the streets. “On TV you see people laying out newspaper blankets. I tried to cover up with newspaper, and I lay there for ten minutes when I realized this wasn’t going to work. I was freezing my ass off. So I started wandering around every night. I did that for years. I wandered around trying to stay awake, trying to stay warm. Until somebody, my friend Glen, gave me a car. He’s a great guy. He saw the potential in me. 

He said “Instead of sleeping out on the streets you can sleep in my car…I kept the car for a good year until the tags expired and couldn’t afford that and had to get rid of that and got a tent.” 

On the streets, Flowal found that “mental illness is rampant, especially in Hollywood… You’re constantly running into individuals who are mentally unstable. For whatever reason when you cross their path, there is going to be some kind of confrontation. They might seem friendly at first, but something would trigger them, and they snap. In many instances I have had confrontations out here on the street. And not only with mentally ill people but some normal people as well. They see homeless, and they might have perceptions about you, and I have to defend my own character.”e was younger, he had a lot of unfortunate confrontations with the police who “slammed me on cars as a kid. As I got older when I started carrying myself with a certain demeanor, those confrontations became less and less.” 

Flowal still kept working as a security guard and even rented an apartment for a year. At the year’s end he realized “all I’m doing is working to pay rent. I can’t even afford a decent meal, a new pair of clothes. I couldn’t afford the luxuries of life or even the comforts. I couldn’t afford basic cable. After the apartment house, I went back to the streets as most people do. It’s kind of a never-ending cycle. I just found it harder to make it on my own without the support of the Covenant House or family. I worked, and I still work now. At that time, I had to think about what am I working for? I had to reevaluate my choices.” 

When he was 32, Flowal’s father was trying to help him get off the streets. Flowal worked for his father, who had two jobs. His father’s legal job was being a caregiver for a man named Clyde who had dementia. “On the weekends,” Flowal said, “I would come over and take care over for him. My father would pay me. But he said eventually you are going to have to get a full-time job or go back to school. Those being his last words I enrolled in LACC (Los Angeles City College).” After his father was murdered, Flowal started at LACC. 

“I studied film and ended up take a few other courses just to keep the grants rolling in,” Flowal said. “I started taking computer courses, extra-curriculum courses, English courses that I didn’t need but I knew would need to help me to get my bachelors. I wanted to go to another film school. I heard UCLA had a good film program—I just wanted to get more learning in film. I want to sharpen my tool. I love editing. I’ve got a knack for it.  When I took the [film] editing class [at LACC], I realized I’m so sharp at computers that editing comes to me naturally. Everyone else when I was looking around were struggling [and] looked frustrated editing. I was just sitting back and clicking away going through it like it was a breeze.” 

“When I first started going to LACC I was actually sleeping in my truck that I inherited from my father after he was murdered. I stayed in my truck until it was impounded by the city of Inglewood for expired registration. It was rough sleeping in that truck trying to figure out where to park especially when it had expired registration. At that time, I was living in the streets. It was rough leaving school, going back to the streets, waking up, going back to school, and waiting for the grants to kick in. Someone eventually allowed me to stay [in their house] on my word that once I got the grant, I would pay them back rent. Once the money ran out, I was back on the streets, still going to school, waiting [for] the next semester to kick in, waiting on the next grants.” 

In January 2019 Democratic Assemblyman Marc Berman introduced a bill to allow any student in good standing at their community college use their school’s parking lot as a place to safely sleep overnight. California has hundreds of thousands of students who are either homeless or face the threat of being homeless. Berman thinks the state should build affordable housing, but in the meantime parking lots provide students with a safe place to sleep at night. 

Flowal says, “They could definitely have secure parking lots for students that are living out of their cars. Even an overnight parking lot would be great. That way you don’t have to travel too far. You would already be at school when you wake up. And even if it’s just during the weekdays.” 

The state Legislature set aside $7.5 million last year to fight campus hunger, and colleges have started food pantries and meal-sharing programs, signing up students for food stamps and creating apps to notify them about leftover catered food. Flowal adds that “colleges could help homeless students more by pointing students to community resources. I had to search and search until I found out there was a church directly across the street from LACC that would give out free lunch four days a week. It was probably day-old pizza or some small cup of concentrated juice...” He mentioned that LACC recently started a free food program for their students: “Once a month if you are a student you can show up and pick up various items, mostly vegetables and some dry goods. But you know it alleviates some of that pressures of the expenses associated with being a student.” 

Flowal continues, saying that when he was at LACC, a student could take a shower if he or she was enrolled in a gym class and “have a coach assign you a locker. Then you can go in and access the showers. I actually did before I got a gym class. I would just go into the locker room and just risk it. Throw my stuff in some random locker, pray it’s there when I got out of the shower, take a quick shower. I did that on quite a few occasions. They should make showers a lot more easily accessible to all students whether you’re homeless or not….”  Now state law also lets homeless students take showers in their gym. 

Flowal describes how he “stayed at LACC six semesters, and then I actually ended up getting kicked out of there as well. It was really strange. I was eating an avocado with a knife. I was hungry. I couldn’t afford anything. I grabbed a couple of avocados on the way to school. I was sitting studying my work inside of the student lounge. I pull out an avocado and started cutting it open. Next thing I know I was being surrounded by six security guards who said “We heard you have a knife. Do you have a knife?” 

“I said, ‘I was cutting an avocado open.’ 

“’There are no knives allowed on the school campus. We are going to have to confiscated it,’ they said. They sent it over to the dean. They did a whole police report. They said that I could pick up [the knife] from the dean after school. I just let it go. I figured nothing of it.” 

When financial aid didn’t kick in two months later, he went to the dean to figure out what was going on. The dean said, “We sent you a letter but since you didn’t reply or respond to it, it’s an automatic one-year suspension from school. You’re not even supposed to be here on campus for one year.”  

According to Flowal, “They said they sent me multiple letters. They sent the letters to my P.O. Box which was locked because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill because I was waiting on financial aid. I never got those letters. I told him, ‘My email was still the same, and he could have sent them by email.’ I said, ‘I have been showing up every day. You could have come to any of my class and said, “Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?”” 

Flowal found out he had to pay back his grant. “There are two kinds of grants,” he says. “One of them to pay for the classes. And the other to help you the student get by in life: rent, books, whatever necessities you need. And the grant part that paid for my classes they told me I would have to pay that back before I could go back to college. There’s no way I could afford $1500. So that pretty much ended my college career.” 

Flowal had a similar bad experience signing up for Section 8 housing, which provides vouchers to rent an apartment. He signed up for Section 8 when he was nineteen years old, and they finally sent him an approval letter at the age of about twenty-six. But then they denied his application because he had a P.O. box. He couldn’t get a Section 8 voucher. He also got food stamps, but he felt that these programs were “not set up for people to succeed. It’s just a never-ending revolving door. It’s just temporary relief. The programs aren’t set up for you to exit…” 

He describes raids on the homeless he’s seen. “…the police and the dump trucks would show up, start taping off the sidewalk, wake everyone up in their tents, and tell the homeless they have fifteen minutes to get all their stuff and leave. Five minutes later they’re telling them they couldn‘t get any of their stuff. Whatever they have in their hands that’s all they can take.” 

“But you told us we had fifteen minutes,” the homeless people would say. 

“Whatever you have in your hands you can take,” the police would say. “Back away from the yellow tape, sir.” Then the police “start throwing their stuff in the dumpster one after the other. All their stuff. It’s pretty sad. Some of these people have heart medications. Whatever valuables. But all the city workers see is a nuisance. That’s not right. Whatever they are doing right now isn’t working. I personally see without statistics more and more people, more and more families becoming homeless. I remember the first time I saw an actual family with [a] mother, father, and two children. I think stop building these homes that are unaffordable. When I was working full-time all I could afford was the rent. The city of LA should build more affordable housing. And they should drop the rent of the housing they have now.” 

Right now, Flowal wants to focus on his craft of video editing, but “mind you I didn’t have none of the tools I needed. You have to have a very powerful computer. I didn’t have that. I have been out of school.” 

  1. B. Barnum came back and asked him, “You’re still doing editing? ...I have thousands of hours footage I need edited. You can come up to my place three days a week. I got three computers. Just pick one.” Flowal did go to work editing video for Barnum. “Every day I’m learning, every day I’m improving. Every day I’m working towards my dream. I would love to be a full-time in-house editor. 

“Right now, I am just focusing on these small editing projects three days a week up in the Hollywood Hills for Mr. H. B. Barnum. My goal right now is to continue working on this editing, perfect my craft, and preferable that will lead to bigger opportunities. Hopefully I will get a full-time job inside of an editing house. They make anything from $75-$150/hour. I would love that. Thankfully now I have another friend, and her mother let me move in.” She said, “Cold weather’s coming and come in and get warm.” 

Flowal would like to live in a comfortable place where he could “walk around my community without worrying. A place that is easily accessible and I can go to and fro from work. I’m simple. I don’t need much. I’m living off of Slauson and Western, and it takes me about 2 hours every day on the bus to get to work.” If Flowal could, he would return to LACC today, and he saw “a couple people post the first day of school. I thought it would be nice to go back. The main thing I want to do is go to film school. I also got another friend who got accepted into Studio Film School which is in downtown LA. It doesn’t necessarily have to be LACC. It could be any film school.” 

Research done by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36 percent of college students nationally experience some form of homelessness and nine percent are entirely homeless.  In March 2017, the University of Wisconsin issued a “study that surveyed students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. It found that 14 percent were homeless.” 

Now, in 2019, colleges across the nation have begun to help their homeless students. Amherst College, a private university in Massachusetts, offers students in need a place to stay in the summer by keeping their dorms open. In Pennsylvania at West Chester University, football coach Bill Zwaan started a drive in 2014 to let the students stay on campus for winter and summer breaks. Zwaan and his ten siblings took the money they used to spend on Christmas gift exchange and spent the same amount on gifts for the homeless. “It just spread like wildfire,” said Zwaan. “Last year was a huge success and this year is even bigger.” Bryn Mawr College provides housing and meals at no charge to needy students while the University of Pennsylvania keeps open during the holiday season, with dorms and “reloadable debit cards for meals and groceries.” 

Higher Education in 2018 reported that some California colleges do help students with housing, stating, “Humboldt State has started a home-share program that matches students with elderly residents, reducing housing costs for both. At Chico State, students can access free hotel vouchers for short-term stays, and the campus will co-sign apartment leases. In 2016, UCLA opened a shelter run by and for students that offers “meals, nine beds, and a study work.” Students who stay there come from UCLA, Santa Monica Colleges, and other community colleges. 

But the nation does need to do more to help the couple hundred thousand students who are either homeless or almost homeless. Safe parking lots, showers in the gym, and food pantries are just a beginning. The colleges could open more shelters as well as build more dorms, have an emergency housing program to get students into a dorm room, give on-campus jobs for homeless students, and also provide impoverished students free food in its cafeterias.

 

(Julia Stein is a poet, novelist, and literary critic now living in Los Angeles. She has published five books of poetry: Under the Ladder to Heaven, Desert Soldiers, Shulamith, and Walker Woman, and What Were They Like? Stein is also co-author of the book "Shooting Women: Behind the Camera.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.