EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was produced with support from a New America Media reporting fellowship on children in poverty in California, and is part two of a three part series exploring youth homelessness and education.
FRESNO -- When Daniella Valencia relaxes on the grass in front of the library at California State University, Fresno, she appears to be a typical college student.
Daniella, 20, a second-year student majoring in Sociology with a minor in Urbanization, has strawberry blonde hair, a bright smile and an optimistic attitude. She lives with a friend from church in an apartment not far from campus, paying her own rent and utilities.
But prior to December, she lived at a Transitional Living Center (TLC) operated by the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, which provides housing services to homeless youth aged 18-24.
Having left behind the substance abuse and instability that characterized the environment of her two previous homes, Daniella was just looking for a place where she could focus on her schoolwork and move toward a positive future.
"When I was 14 I realized that with my predicament, I wasn't going to be successful in school or with anything," Daniella said about her childhood. "I needed to move out [of my mom’s house.] I was going crazy.”
When Daniella left her family home years ago, she became an unaccompanied homeless youth -- one of the many teenagers and young adults across the country who lack safe, stable housing, and who are not in the care of a parent or guardian.
She joined the 1.6 million to 2.8 million other youth who leave their homes each year, generally due to severe dysfunction in their families, such as abuse, neglect and other circumstances that put their health and safety at risk, according to a 2007 California Research Bureau study.
While the number of homeless youth in California is unknown, it is likely that 200,000 youth under age 18, and thousands of 18-24 year olds, are homeless for one or more days during a year, according to the state Homeless Youth Project.
For many unaccompanied youth, school provides a refuge from the instability and chaos of their lives, said Diana Bowman, program director of the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina, Greenboro’s SERVE Center.
Many unaccompanied youth, she said, “are in survival mode, and that poses great challenges.” Still, she said, “in many or most cases, these are kids that really want to be in school. They love the normalcy, they love the stability – it’s the one constant, safe, stable place in their lives, in this period of time that is very tumultuous.”
But homeless youth face barriers to achieving an education in Fresno Unified School District, which serves the second highest number of homeless youth in California, after Los Angeles. Only 60 percent of homeless students attending Fresno Unified graduated last year.
Nationally, the numbers are hardly better, with 38 percent of the total U.S. homeless population having less than a high school degree by age 18, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
But Daniella, it seems, has beat the odds.
She remembers growing up around substance abuse -- a factor that she said has strengthened her ability to "just say no," and pursue a positive course in life. "Because of my family history, I hate to be around drugs,” she said. “I know what kinds of chaos they bring."
As a freshman at Fresno High School, she was getting F’s and ditching school, but also taking on responsibilities usually reserved for those beyond her age and life experience.
"I was being the mom,” said Daniella. “I had to watch my brother and sister, it was hard cleaning the house when nobody was cooperating… I [also] needed to focus on school."
Feeling helpless and hopeless, Daniella decided to move into a friend's house. But things weren't any better at her new home.
"I went from one unstable family to another," she said. "It was the same scene, just different people and different problems."
Focusing on her studies at Fresno High did not become easier, either. The family Daniella was living with lacked stability, and they moved around constantly.
"I've probably lived on every side of town," she said, "and I always found a way to school."
There was one bright spot during those days of turmoil: Daniella found a supportive community at Legacy Christian Church, and the lessons she learned there, she said, gave her the strength to succeed in high school and beyond.
“[I learned] how to keep an open heart and mind for my loved ones," she said.
Despite her constant moving around, Daniella never considered transferring to a school closer to her place of residence, because she didn’t “want to go through the trouble of changing schools every time I move."
She also never declared herself homeless, even though by doing so, she could have accessed resources, like bus tokens to cover the cost of her transportation to school.
She remembers thinking to herself: "If I don't want to get [placed] into the [foster care] system, I have to avoid doing anything wrong… It just made more sense to stay where I'm at and do the best that I can, so I could just hurry up and get out of high school and do what I have to do," she said.
Daniella enrolled in one of the TLC housing programs during her senior year of high school.
She graduated from Fresno High in 2009, and continued living at the center throughout her first year and a half of college.
The three living centers run by TLC have a total of 75 beds, and an estimated 105 youth rely on their services each year.
While at the center, Daniella was kept busy with chores and meetings with caseworkers. She was also required to attend various workshops that focused on safe sex, independent living, and how to maintain good health, the whole point of which was to help her become independent and ease her transition into adulthood.
"It's very structured," said Daniella. "There are a lot of rules. If you are the type of person who likes to fight rules and structure, it wouldn't be for you."
Daniella recalled how conversations with her case manager kept her on a steady path, helping her deal with her frustrations stemming from family and school problems.
"I guess you could say it helped me stay sane," Daniella said in a joking tone.
Although the Transitional Living Center provided her with a stable, structured place to live, Daniella said it still didn't truly feel like home.
"It was really helpful, but… I knew I would be leaving anyways," Daniella said, as she strolled through the Fresno State campus on a recent Tuesday afternoon. She wore a black and white plaid jacket, given to her by the Transitional Living Center. Her favorite belt -- black, with the white letters: DRUG FREE -- held up her light-colored jeans.
Daniella said that nowadays she rarely thinks about finding a “real” home, but said she “can't wait until I get married, because I think it will feel more stable."
Although Daniella will be the first in her family to graduate from college, she said it hasn't set in yet. "I just want to be out there, doing positive things, filling my life up with positive people," said Daniella. She plans to join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps after college.
When asked why she prioritized education, Daniella responded: "I want to exceed my opportunities. I want to live life to the fullest."