One Student at a Time

Junior Owen Phillips (left) has been shadowing Celso Fuentes, a caseworker with Project Hope Alliance, through the Junior Mentor Program.

Courtesy of Owen Phillips

Junior Owen Phillips (left) has been shadowing Celso Fuentes, a caseworker with Project Hope Alliance, through the Junior Mentor Program.

Would you be surprised to know that the quiet kid sitting next to you in history might be in danger of losing her home? Or that your chemistry lab partner might call a motel or even a car home? You might think, “Really? At this school?” But there are indeed students at Newport Harbor High School enduring these challenges every single day. 

In fact, there are many K-12 schools throughout the Newport-Mesa, Santa Ana, and Huntington Beach school districts with students who live in unstable conditions – and many more who are on the brink of losing their homes. This is not a problem unique to Southern California; it is endemic throughout America. A study done by the University of Chicago in 2016 found that one in 30 young people, ages 13 to 17, experience some form of homelessness.*

There have been several studies on homelessness that examine the causes and the various interventions needed to end or, at least, make a difference in breaking the cycle of generational poverty. However, there is one common thread that all the research and experts agree on; the single greatest risk factor for homelessness among young Americans is not having a high school education. In fact, that same University of Chicago study found that youth with less than a high school diploma or GED have a 346% higher risk of experiencing homelessness in their lifetime than youth with at least a high school degree. 

This painful truth underscores the work of Project Hope Alliance, an important organization in Orange County devoted to seeking out homeless or near-homeless youth and helping them every step of the way, with a strong focus on ensuring they stay in school and get the best education possible. PHA’s Chief Executive Officer, Jennifer Friend, was herself a homeless teen who attended Newport-Mesa schools. Church members, friends, and teachers joined forces to support her and encouraged her to stay in school. She eventually went to college and then to law school. Joining Project Hope Alliance seven years ago, she has since overseen a huge growth in their grant budget and expanded their reach and projects.

In 2015, Newport-Mesa Unified School District, partnering with Project Hope Alliance, was the first school district in California to implement a program called “Promoter Pathway,” which places two case managers on each campus to offer these students the support and services they need, in a safe and private setting. Case workers collaborate with the school’s faculty, join staff meetings, and train teachers to spot signs of housing insecurity among their students. In total, PHA employs 20 specialized case workers who provide students at all grade levels with tailored programs based on their education and social goals. 

Celso Fuentes, a PHA caseworker, is no stranger to the instability some students experience. With support from a devoted teacher, he overcame his difficulties as a teen and went on to college, earning a bachelor’s degree. His days working with PHA are long but gratifying, filled with meetings and activities to help the students he manages. He has a private office and a classroom at each of the schools his students attend, and it serves as a safe and anonymous space for the students to meet with him. For younger kids, he also works with the parents. For the high school aged students, it is more of a direct, one-on-one process.

“We try to meet the kids where they are and guide them with a plan for the future,” Fuentes told me. “Sometimes that is financial support, other times it is emotional. But a balance of both is what helps them succeed the most.” 

PHA provides backpacks and school supplies, assists with joining sports teams, helps kids access medical care, and also connects students with tutors and mentors who help them on homework and tests along with other educational and non-academic needs.

Youth and adults experiencing homelessness or facing unstable living situations are a part of our community. Volunteering to make and serve meals to the homeless is certainly helpful, but there are other significant ways to make a lasting impact on our community. Qualified adults over 18 can volunteer to become tutors and mentors at Project Hope Alliance for individual students. For those under 18, PHA has a pantry stocked with toiletries and other items, and volunteers are needed each week to help organize it. Last and maybe most important, as high school students we can focus on fostering a more supportive community. You never really know what someone else is going through, or what might be the home life situation of the person sitting next to you. An offer of friendship and a sympathetic ear is a great place to start. 

For more information on how to get involved, please visit

*For more information on the homeless crisis, here is the University of Chicago study: