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.
Homelessness has spread beyond the fringes. It has spilled into wealthy cities, on the sidewalks and front lawns of neighborhoods. It has oozed its way to businesses and storefronts. It has crept into homes, impacted stable families and has now moved to college campuses.
On the second floor of the 1600 building at Las Positas, Kiley Zieker, a student and once homeless herself, works alongside two other women, CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids) coordinator Amanda Ingold and Danielle Donohoe. The three of them spend countless hours dedicating their energy, passion and careers to tackling this epidemic.
Because in this part of the country, nobody is safe. And somebody has to do something.
Zieker, with her bright eyes, brilliant smile and a hint of blue in her hair, both sits and stands in an office that she connects with as one of her homes. Ingold and Donohoe both agree that Zieker’s story is one that should be told.
“We want her to be famous,” both said, smiling brightly. “We think her story will help so many as they find themselves in this situation.”
The bond between the three is tangible when in their presence. Zieker doesn’t shy away from speaking candidly about days she comes into work feeling heavy with emotion and how they lift her up. “They’re my family, a home away from home,” she said.
In 2018 the women in the EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs and Services) and CalWORKs departments made Zieker a vision board, outlining all the wonderful things she is. This now hangs over her bed as a reminder on the days when it gets too hard to believe it herself.
The scars of homelessness cannot be seen in her smile, but they can be heard and felt when she recalls this time in her life. She considers her experience of being homeless as a time of learning, with blessings that came along the way.
Destitution was the furthest thing from Zieker’s plans, but, at age 18, there she was.
Although adopted at an early age and raised in a stable home, Zieker always felt as if something was missing emotionally. She couldn’t seem to meet the “expectations” set for her. Starting at age 15 and continuing until she reached 18, Zieker sat through hours of therapy. She suffered from eating disorders and depression, which she says may have been brought on by her birth mother’s drug usage.
Now looking back over her younger teenage years, she reflects on these challenges as symptoms of rebellion.
At 18, the age when a girl is just transitioning into womanhood, Zieker became pregnant.
Faced with having an abortion or pursuing adoption, she knew neither were roads she was willing to take.
“Being adopted myself, I couldn’t do it. I realized there’s a gap that no one could fill,” she said.
It was this decision of keeping her baby that led her to being homeless. After breaking the news to her parents about her pregnancy, they kicked her out.
“They wanted nothing to do with me,” she said.
With $40 and her belongings, she left home to figure it all out for herself.
Unwilling to take the steps offered to her (which some might say would have simplified her life) landed her on the streets. But it was this decision that eventually led her to LPC as both student and advocate for students walking in these shoes.
It was the need to do something to help herself that made her go to the local libraries of the Tri-Valley. She needed to know how to survive, how to look for help through the state’s government-run agencies and what type of help was available to her and countless others in her situation.
“I spent hours in the library researching information on housing and services available for homeless people,” Zieker said.
From sleeping in cars and homeless shelters and spending countless hours in the library, Zieker taught herself how to survive in this new way of life. She found information on services available to the homeless population using the public library system’s free computers. Having accumulated this plethora of knowledge, Zieker would later put together a manual, covering everything from home budgeting to moving, and this publication, “Housing Resources,” is made available through the LPC CalWORKs office.
Once embarrassed by her situation and not wanting anyone to know, she lost sight of who she was. Her self-esteem and confidence were challenged.
However, there’s beauty in her story. Along this journey there were friends made. Strangers giving to her, even if she was not seeking help. She recalls a time when someone gave her a pair of shoes and another gave $150 in cash. The shoes did not surprise her, but the cash was more than needed, and it fed her for a while. She even met and spent time with her biological mother along the way.
Eventually she took pride in her experience, wishing to inspire others.
“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.