Jaci Cortez was homeless her first three monhs at East Los Angeles City College. Photo: Jackeline Ramírez

This is a script from a story by a Boyle Heights Beat journalist that’s part of KCRW’s Boyle Heights youth radio project.  You can listen to the story here:

23 year-old Jaci Cortez is retracing her steps of her freshman year in college. Right down to the bathroom she used.

Ambient Sound 1: Bathroom

“I would come in the mornings right before anyone would come and I’d brush my teeth in the sink and then wet my hair and comb it real quick to put it in my ponytail.”

Cortez isn’t talking about dormitory life, she goes to East LA community college. They don’t have dorms. She spent last year living on campus because she was homeless.

Read a print version of this story reported by Carmen González.

“I had people that were nice enough so they would let me sleep in their office so they’d be like okay we’re going to close the door so you can take a nap and I didn’t want people to see me I was small enough and I would fit in the desk, and I would just take a nap there and then my alarm would ring and I had my Obama phone so it really convenient .”

Cortez isn’t alone. The L.A. Community College District says that almost 20% of local community college students are homeless.

Ambient Sound 2: Walking up to the CAYFES Center

Jaci walks upstairs and heads to a small room in the back of her school’s administrative office.

The CAYFES center is full of students. All of them have something in common, they’ve either been in foster care, homeless, or for many, both.

Ambient Sound 3: CAYFES students

“I usually come here a good amount of times during the day just to hang out and chill.”

That’s Bella Mendoza. She’s one of around 48 students who rely on the center. It offers workshops, counseling services, school supplies, hygiene kits and even snacks. Mendoza says CAYFES has given her some stability, which she hasn’t been able to find outside of school.

“I’ve moved about 8-9 times because of dumb situations. I was living in people’s houses. I feel that housing has been one of the toughest parts of being a student.”

Jaci, Bella, and a few others started an activities committee for CAYFES students to bring them closer together outside of school. They go out to eat, see movies, and even visit Disneyland as a group.

“It’s a judge free zone because we do share the same background.”

Ambient Sound 4 Freeway

Right off the 101 freeway in Boyle Heights is a blue and white two story building that houses Jóvenes Inc.. The organization helps homeless youth find temporary housing. They’re also building permanent housing for homeless youth in the area.

“I’ve been with Jóvenes for ten years, there hasn’t been a time where our beds are empty.”

Eric Hubbard is the Development Director for Jovenes Inc.. In addition to helping with housing, he tries to get homeless youth back in school. Hubbard reached out to East LA College and LA Trade Tech to see if they’d take youth in his program on a campus tour.

“That’s when they asked us ‘can you house our students’ and so that’s how we started learning just about how many homeless students there are in Los Angeles.”

Jaci Cortez is one of those students that Eric Hubbard helped.

Ambient Sound 5 Walking into the LCTA

Last school year she was homeless and spent most nights studying instead of sleeping. During the day she took naps on the couch of the Latina Completion and Transfer Academy Center.

Mary Contreras runs the center which supports Latina students to be on the right path to transfer to a four year university. She got used to seeing Cortez.

“She was one of the people that would come and we would say “shh don’t make noise” because we knew her story and some of us have gone through those stories.”

Contreras says she stays late at work a lot and notices students who might be homeless.

“I get to meet the students like ‘oh hi how are you why are you here so late oh I’m waiting for my uber and so why are you waiting on this side of campus? Uber should be here and over here’ so you get to pick up on their cues and we don’t like to put them on the spot.”

Jaci Cortez feels that being homeless impacted her abilities to do well in school.

“Being scared, not having enough food security, worrying about instead of my essays and my tests that’s why I didn’t do so good in my first semester. Housing does help stability, it helps students like myself that are homeless.”

Ambient Sound 6 Walking towards the Locker

The tour ends in the women’s locker rooms at ELAC.

When Cortez was homeless, she would come in here to shower.

“It’s really cool because I could put my body wash, shampoo and conditioner and then I’ll have my stuff on the side and then I’ll just come shower and then here I’d have my extra clothes.”

Cortez says she figured out a way to survive her first year in school. But she wants more than that.

“And it’s like if you don’t have an address, the proper interview clothes and the appearance that they’re looking for because they don’t want you going looking all crazy right they want you to be well trimmed, fresh haircut, smelling really good and we as homeless we don’t have those perks and it’s not after we get some sort of stability like housing, a job that we are able to do that but a lot of people don’t understand that that takes time and it’s not overnight.”

Jaci is now renting her own room 10 minutes away from her school. She’s got a job at the Dream Resource Center at ELAC. Specifically, she’s working towards a certificate in American Sign Language. Generally speaking, she just wants to find a better job, a better place to live and just to be happy.

Reporting from Boyle Heights, this is Jacqueline Ramírez

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Jacqueline Ramírez

Jacqueline Ramírez is a former reporter and recent graduate from Mount Saint Mary’s University. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and New Media. She enjoys sharing the art of storytelling...

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