Young and Homeless (Part III): Risking It All, For an Education

Young and Homeless (Part III): Risking It All, For an Education

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was produced with support from a New America Media fellowship to report on children in poverty in California, and is part three of a three-part series on youth homelessness and education.

FRESNO -- When he was just 14 years old, Antonio Magaña made the toughest decision of his young life. Antonio, who was born in Visalia, Calif., decided to leave his mother and two younger siblings in Colima, México, and return to the United States -- alone -- to enroll in high school.

The choice, he said, was motivated by one goal: To earn an education, so he, his Mexican mother and his U.S.-born siblings could have a future in California.

"I came here just for that -- so I could offer me and her and my siblings a better future," said Antonio, now 17, as he sat on a tree-shaded bench on the Roosevelt High School campus one Thursday afternoon in March.

The decision, though, placed Antonio on a trajectory toward youth homelessness. Since arriving in California three years ago, Antonio has bounced through the homes of five relatives, and attended three high schools.

"I have been around a lot," he said, as he listed the various places he has lived.

"There were times when I thought I should just go back to México, but I didn't. Thank God, I didn't... I'm really this close to graduating."

As he couch-surfed from one relative's home to another, Antonio became one of the approximately 2,400 homeless students in Fresno Unified School District who lack a fixed, regular, stable, and adequate nighttime residence. In Fresno Unified -- the district with the second highest number of homeless students in the state -- about 60 percent of homeless youth are Latino.

Antonio initially might not seem to fit the traditional definition of homeless: He was not sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in motels, like some other homeless students.

Still, he qualifies for support through the school district's Project ACCESS -- which assists homeless students with enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school -- because he does not have a stable residence. For more than three years, he has not had a home to call his own, a family to depend on, or a mother to encourage him to do his homework each night.

Yet hardly any of that has held Antonio back, or diminished his dream of achieving an education and providing a brighter future for his family.

"I'm always optimistic," he said. "I never like looking at the negatives. I've always been like that -- that's what keeps me motivated."

Growing up, Antonio attended elementary school in Tulare and Fresno. When he was 11, his mother, who was undocumented, moved Antonio and his two younger siblings back to Colima, México, so she could care for her ill father.

Antonio attended middle school in México, but knew his mother, who worked in the fields, could not afford to send him to high school there. The cost of attending high school in México, plus purchasing books, would be cost-prohibitive for his family, he said.

"I had seen the life we had [in Mexico], and it was hard," he said. "There were points where I wanted to drop out of school and work in the fields, too, to help her."

Antonio, who proudly calls himself a "mama's boy," decided to leave his mother and siblings behind in México and return alone to the U.S. to pursue his high school diploma.

"I told her, either I drop [out of school] and I work, or I go to the United States where I could go [to school] for free. The money you're going to spend on me you don't have to, and I can just be over there on my own."

"I didn't want to leave my mom," said Antonio. "It was hard, but I also did it for her."

So Antonio returned to California at age 14.

He lived with multiple relatives upon arriving first in Los Angeles, before moving to Tulare where he lived with his aunt. He eventually came to Fresno to live with another aunt, but now lives with yet another aunt and uncle in Fresno.

During that time, he attended high school for two months in Los Angeles, two months in Fresno, and a handful of months in Tulare. He has now been at Roosevelt High School, back in Fresno, for two years.

He only sees his mother and two siblings, now ages 9 and 14, when he returns to Mexico during summer vacations. On his visits, he is careful not to discuss his unstable living situation too often.

"I didn't even know this," responded Antonio's new girlfriend, 17-year-old Monse Talamante, as she heard him describe the various places he has lived.

Despite the instability of constantly changing schools and homes, and the emotional pain of speaking with his mother via telephone just once a week, Antonio has managed to achieve a 3.3 GPA at Roosevelt.

He is enrolled in the school's IRS Academy, a business education program, and through the academy, he secured a part-time job at the Internal Revenue Service this spring. He is vice president of the senior class of the IRS Academy, and is also involved in the school's Californians for Justice club and the Youth Leadership Academy.

He expects to graduate from Roosevelt High School this spring, wearing a cap, gown and class ring purchased for him by Project ACCESS.

Already having been accepted for admission to California State University, Fresno, Antonio is still waiting to hear back from Fresno Pacific University. He hopes to double major in business and accounting, and criminal justice.

Antonio’s drive to be successful in school, he said, comes straight from his mother. "I'm shaped by my mom," he said. "She always cared about me going to school."

Academic accomplishments will mean little to Antonio, though, if he cannot bring his siblings, and eventually his mother, back to California. He hopes his younger brother returns to California next year, and when he is 21, said Antonio, he intends to help his mother return to the U.S. legally.

"I just need to fix my mom's papers, and then we will be reunited," he said.

"I came to get a good education here, for a better future. I have more [of a] future here than I do in México."

To read a first-person account written by Rebecca Plevin, about her experiences reporting on youth homelessness in Fresno, please visit her blog, Harvesting Health.