MY RETURN HOME
FROM THE STREETS TO THE CLASSROOM
by Deborah Ahl
The faces of the homeless are changing.
They are not just the aged veterans saddled by mental health issues. They are not just drug addicts who never got back on their feet. They are not battered women who chose destitution over abuse.
They are single mothers desperately in need of a break. They are working class people priced out of their homes. They are immigrants mining for opportunities. They are veterans who fought for our freedom. They are the students who walk past you every day with hopes of a better tomorrow.
Homelessness is no longer exclusive to the outcasts of society. But in the Bay Area, especially the suburbs of the Tri-Valley, homelessness has engulfed even the established.
They now represent 14 percent of the community college population, according to the 2017 “Basic Needs Survey Report,” published by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. They aren’t easy to spot. They make a practice of blending in with the crowd, not wanting to be recognized, too embarrassed to reveal their plight.
“No person should be embarrassed about being homeless. Unfortunately we see it more often than not,” Zieker said.
In California alone, the homeless population has grown dramatically over the last few years.
According to a May 20, 2018 CNBC report by Jeff Daniels, “As California’s Homelessness Grows, the Crisis Emerges as a Major Issue in State’s Gubernatorial Race,” as of 2017, California had about 134,000 homeless people living in shelters, on the streets and in tent cities. Women make up at least a quarter of this epidemic.
When Zieker speaks about the challenges during that time in her life, she is at peace, even if not all the pain is gone. She’s still a work in progress, but at least there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“If it hadn’t been for the alone time and experiencing what I did, I would have never been here,” she said.
It was this time of desperation, along with the desire not to be just another teen-aged mother working dead-end jobs, that propelled Zieker to return to school. After being homeless for five years, moving from one state to the next while nine months pregnant, she returned home to California. Not to her parents’ house, but to an affordable roommate situation. For the first time in several years, Zieker had a bedroom and a bathroom to call her own. Things were beginning to look up.
The decision to return to school was not an easy one. It caused her some apprehension, returning to a world she hadn’t known in five years, the fear of failing close on her heels. That’s why setting the bar low for herself came easy. She never imagined the possibility of graduating with an associate degree in political science let alone thoughts of transferring to UC Berkeley to become lawyer.
And yet, here she is. Working tirelessly as an advocate for the homeless in the CalWORKs department while carrying a full class load. And to top that off, she is now the mother of two. “For the first time in a long time, I have stability in my life. A whole year,” she said, smiling.
Not knowing how she was going to pay for school or school supplies is what led her to the department where she now works.
CalWORKs showed her how to apply for financial aid and Pell Grants that she uses to pay for school and take care of her home.
“I don’t use that money for anything else,” she said. Zieker regards these additions to her CalWORKs earnings as blessings not to be squandered.
“CalWORKs accepted me with open arms and no judgment, which meant a lot,” she said.
It’s the stigma of being homeless that causes shame. Being frowned upon as if you don’t have a part in this great big world. Common assumptions — drugs, alcohol or other forms of abuse bringing on homelessness — are unfortunately true in some instances.
A recent study by the Education Development Center (EDC) found that 49 percent of the homeless community met criteria for a severe mental illness and/or a chronic substance use disorder.
Another factor is the risk of suicide while homeless. The same EDC study said, “Rates of suicide deaths among homeless individuals are approximately nine times higher than the general population.”
Although Zieker suffered at times from depression throughout her ordeal, the thought of giving up was not a choice she considered.
“I want to work at this for the rest of my life. Helping the homeless.”
Paying it forward.