PROTECTING THE YOUTH
In 2018, a new survey commissioned by the system’s board of trustees identified that 1 in every 5 of California’s Community College District’s 230,000 students is homeless. These students, often living in their cars or couch surfing, had no safe place to go. Because we work with the homeless in Orange County every day, we could see the rising population of homeless young people.
We knew this was a problem we critically needed to address. With three decades of experience assisting individuals and families from homelessness to permanent housing, we knew that housing and education lead to stability and generational change. This generational change is necessary to end the cycle of poverty exponentially increasing social problems in our community.
We signed a lease for a house in Fullerton, CA, in June of 2020 and launched the Combined Housing, Education and Skills for Students (CHESS) Program. This program provides a way for homeless college-aged students, ages 18- 24, to pursue an education and get extra care and support as they transition to self-sufficiency.
We adapted our holistic programs to emphasize education and life skills. The CHESS program guides young people to complete college courses or job training programs, secure better grades, obtain employment, acquire life skills and save money
TARGETING THOSE IN NEED
We started the program with a house for young men ages 18-24. Our goal is to add another shelter for young women by 2024. The first shelter houses ten to twelve students with an in-house resident manager. Students have the opportunity to reside in our supportive student housing for 24 months.
Youth must be identified as homeless or at-risk of homelessness to be eligible for the program—the CHESS program targets recent high school graduates who meet three qualification methods based on College Promise requirements. Students can enter the program and complete their high school diploma as well.
Our program is designed to eliminate as many barriers to success as possible, training students in the basics of independent living with daily support and advocacy from a multidisciplinary on-site time team. Living in a college dormitory-style setting, resident advisors (RAs) will be available 24/7 and assist with crisis intervention, mentoring, advocacy, problem solving, job training, and financial education.
With guidance from case managers, students establish a case plan with a minimum of three goals in areas such as academic progress, employment, housing, graduation, substance abuse, and overall health. The Case Managers help escort students to appointments and important events, assist with placement and paperwork, and connect the students to partner agencies. The program works with students to improve interpersonal skills, provide educational opportunities, assist with job preparation, and ensure that physical and mental health care needs are met. The students have access to our food pantry and have opportunities to participate in activities such as field trips, workshops, and school events.
The impact of the CHESS Program is measured by the following outcomes:
- Improved academic success: GPA of 2.0 or better is required by the program.
- Improvement in the practice of healthy behaviors and decrease in risk-taking behaviors such as substance use, self-harm, unsafe sex practices and criminal behaviors.
- Increased internal strengths including social, physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
- Increase in access to housing options upon graduation from the program.
We have seen results already. Several CHESS Program young men have received their high school diplomas and more are on track to graduate from high school. We have three students applying to college, and we have two students joining the military. The young men in our CHESS Program form a family and bond with their mentors.
Even with the challenges of the pandemic, 50% of them have jobs in addition to attending school. Our CHESS program students are off the streets, abstaining from substance abuse, learning life skills, and attending school.
Jack, who was recently admitted into the program, had this to say about the CHESS program:
“I had no place to go. I was crashing at friend’s houses and sleeping wherever I could. The life I was living was rough. I’m not sure how long that would have lasted, and I was trying to go to classes, but it was like, impossible. I was so stressed that I could not focus on school or grades. Now, I’ve got a place to live and some people really care about me there. They helped me get out of the mess. I’m going to school and I can get a good job and get my own place someday.”