At 15, he is defending his home and parenting his sister. One young man’s struggle to stay in school

by Gabriel Martinez
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housing instability youth

At the young age of 15, Deneffy Sánchez should have been engrossed in algebra and biology, catching up on ninth-grade courses he didn’t pass due to his struggles with depression. Instead, his academic pursuits were overshadowed by more immediate needs.

In the stifling heat of June, in the room he shares with his mother and younger sister, Deneffy overheard their new housemate — once a complete stranger, now a source of tension — complain bitterly about sharing her space with them.

Fabiola Del Castillo expressed regret for her decision to a journalist, speaking in Spanish, as Deneffy’s mother, Lilian López, stood by in the cramped space that doubled as their living and dining area.

“You must vacate by this Saturday,” Del Castillo stated firmly to López, setting a non-negotiable deadline.

The impending Saturday, merely days away, imposed an urgent countdown for Deneffy.

He was racing against time to preserve their living quarters.

Despite the ongoing challenges faced by students like Deneffy since the pandemic’s onset, the clock has not paused. The dwindling time for completing high school is a stark reality, with a vast number of students absent on a daily basis. For those who do attend, their personal burdens often impede their ability to focus and learn. A considerable segment has even vanished from the school system.

Local conditions, varying in nature, have derailed the aspirations of youth during and in the wake of COVID-19. In Los Angeles, and across much of California, the crisis of housing insecurity has been a colossal barrier to students’ paths to recovery.

Elmer Roldan, executive director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, points out that housing is a principal factor preventing children from attending school or being located at all. In the last year, two-fifths of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District were absent for more than 10% of the school term, the district data reveals.

Moreover, as of April, the district had lost touch with over 2,500 students — those who ceased attending school without enrolling elsewhere, as per preliminary figures on the district’s website.

The reasons behind these figures vary greatly, some completely elusive. Deneffy’s journey is just one illustration of a youth’s life derailed by the pandemic, shedding light on his difficulties in re-engaging with his education.

Before the pandemic struck, Deneffy was not particularly fond of school, yet he was seldom absent.

His leisure time was spent playing soccer or baseball and participating in the local police department’s youth cadet program on weekends, nurturing his mother’s hopes of him becoming a police officer.

However, this summer found Deneffy not enjoying the typical teenage experiences but instead ensnared in a domestic conflict within the confines of an apartment, pitted against an antagonistic adult co-tenant.

When a journalist paid a visit, Deneffy was found reclining in bed, covertly recording Del Castillo, fearing future necessity of the evidence, while his mother stood composedly with her toddler daughter beside her.

“But I paid the full rent for June since you didn’t have it, and you agreed to cover July,” López asserted in Spanish. Despite handing over $1,240 to Del Castillo, López suspected the rent for their modest apartment was far less.

Del Castillo confirmed the payment but resisted the idea of hosting them for two months. She complained about the noise and lack of sleep caused by the family, eventually breaking down in tears and revealing that, having spent the rent money López gave her, she would forfeit the apartment at the month’s end.

Although the government categorizes a large proportion of “homeless” students as those without stable housing, many, according to federal data, still find shelter, often precarious and in shared living situations. In Los Angeles, the superintendent reported more than 13,000 homeless students, with about 2,000 in shelters.

After an assault at a shelter three years prior, López was adamant about securing their own housing. The power dynamics in Los Angeles afford those with a lease the leverage to exploit individuals like López, who lack the resources and knowledge to secure housing independently, and who are desperate to steer clear of shelters.

Deneffy’s resolve to stay put in the apartment, effectively preventing Del Castillo from evicting them, stemmed from an earlier incident when she locked out his mother and sister. He felt a growing unease at the thought of it happening again. As the man of the house in the absence of a father, he took on the role of caregiver for his sister and often contemplated the grim possibility of his mother’s demise, which would leave him solely responsible for Jennifer, who affectionately called him “Papa.”

Research indicates that students assuming parental roles often find it challenging to remain in school. Family duties or financial pressures have been a contributing factor to 35% of student dropouts post-pandemic, as per a report from Communities in Schools and research firm Momentive.

While the conflict with Del Castillo heightened, López sought assistance from a local councilman, the housing authority, and a nonprofit, which led to a temporary reprieve. A case manager worked to get the family into a shelter as a stop-gap, emphasizing the critical need for permanent housing.

A city housing inspector, acting on a tip, paid a visit to the apartment. Upon witnessing the cramped conditions, they remarked in disbelief at the realization that three people were living in the space meant for one.

Deneffy, alongside his family, faced an uncertain future with the expiration of the lease looming over them. While grappling with housing instability, his academic journey hung in the balance, representing a broader issue for many students across Los Angeles and beyond.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about housing instability youth

What is the current state of youth homelessness in urban areas?

Youth homelessness in urban areas is a growing concern, with many young individuals facing a shortage of affordable housing options. Economic challenges, insufficient support systems, and high costs of living contribute to the issue.

How does the housing crisis affect young people differently than other age groups?

The housing crisis impacts young people uniquely as they often have lower incomes, less credit history, and face discrimination in housing markets. Additionally, they may lack family support and have fewer resources to navigate the housing system.

What policy measures can be implemented to alleviate youth homelessness?

Policy measures to alleviate youth homelessness include increasing affordable housing stock, offering rental assistance programs, providing support services tailored for young people, and enforcing anti-discrimination laws in housing.

Can community programs make a difference in solving the housing crisis for young individuals?

Yes, community programs can significantly impact by offering direct support, such as shelters and transitional housing, and by providing services that address underlying issues such as education and job training.

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