Brittany Jones is one of the college students KQED reporters followed over the past several months. When we first met her in the fall, she was homeless. But since sharing her story, her life has changed dramatically. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)
Brittany Jones is a 25-year-old student who attends Laney College, a community college in downtown Oakland.
Brittany wasn't interested in going to college when she was younger, but she came around to the idea later on. She found that working the jobs available to her -- overnight security, stocking grocery shelves, retail -- wasn't advancing her life the way she had hoped. Brittany realized she liked being a student, and when she didn't have a home, going to school was the most normal, consistent activity in her life. She would take one class a semester.
Both Brittany’s parents died when she was a child. Her father was shot and killed when she was a baby. Brittany lived a few more years with her mother until she died of what Brittany suspects was a drug overdose, but she’s never gotten the full story.
After her mother's death, Brittany became a foster kid. She spent her childhood moving between foster families, relatives and group homes. When she turned 19, she aged out of the foster care system. Since then, Brittany went in and out of homelessness.
When Brittany didn't have a place of her own, she slept on the floors and couches of friends' and families' apartments, caught sleep on public transportation and, as a last resort, stayed up all night at 24-hour restaurants.
Throughout this routine, she hid the fact that she didn't have a home. She did this through the stylish clothes she bought at thrift stores, avoiding making new friends and saying she had an apartment in Oakland or Richmond.
We followed Brittany for eight months, from October 2016 until May 2017. Below are images of her life over this time, changed dramatically by an outpouring of support from some of our listeners.
In the fall of 2016, Brittany was homeless. She'd spend her time on public transit, at school or work if she had a job, with friends or family members, or at a Storage Mart where she rented a unit.
Click on the below photos and read the captions to learn more about her life back then:
Immediately, there was a huge response. Old foster families reached out to have Brittany over for a meal, teachers thanked her for sharing her story and KQED audience members created streams of support. One listener created a fundraising website, which raised over $5,000 for Brittany, and a generous family from Oakland offered to help find an apartment for Brittany. Their plan was to pay the rent for at least a year.
Just two weeks after Brittany's story aired, she got the keys to her new studio apartment, just a short walk from Laney College.
The photos below were taken the day she moved into her apartment:
With the foundation of an apartment and donations and emotional support from strangers, family and friends, Brittany took on a load of three courses at Laney College in the spring semester. She's found she loves being a student, loves working on her English and math skills and grappling with new concepts.
Now that Brittany has a space of her own, she's been able to better get to know herself, and be a more typical young adult in her 20s.
She's opening herself up to new experiences like meditation, and enjoying the things she was too exhausted to do before, like going out dancing with friends. Having an apartment has also created the mental space for Brittany to begin processing the challenges of her childhood and her time without shelter.
There are still big questions in Brittany's life. How long will it take to finish school? Will the degree be all Brittany hopes for? What about housing? Brittany isn’t actually sure how long the family from Oakland is planning to pay her rent. It's a hard conversation to have.
Click on the photos and captions below for a view of Brittany's life recently:
Since these last photos were taken, Brittany completed her semester at Laney College and passed all of her classes. She volunteered to speak at an end-of-school celebration, and has scheduled a time to talk about next steps with the family who helps her rent an apartment.
When we first met her, Ebony Ortega was a full-time student at San Francisco State University. She worked at Starbucks to put herself through school. She spent her nights sleeping on friends’ couches or in her car.
Ebony’s plan was to graduate this spring, but she failed two of her classes and received an incomplete in another. Now she’s on academic probation.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Ebony says. “You feel like you can handle so much. But at the end of the day, it’s not enough. Whatever is in you is not enough.”
But it’s not all bad news for Ebony.
After our original story aired, our listeners organized a Go Fund Me account for Ebony, which raised around $2,800. She's using the funds to help pay her bills and not have to work so many Starbucks shifts.
She’s also found a permanent place to live. Her 21-year-old sister moved from Palmdale, and the two now share a $600/month room in an East Oakland apartment they share with a large family.
“She knows how to put me in check,” Ebony says of her sister. “She’s like my little big sister because she’s two years younger than me, but she acts like an older sister.”
Armed with a stable place to live, Ebony has dived into her coursework with a renewed sense of purpose. She needs to retake at least five classes so she can boost her GPA and get off academic probation. This time next year, she hopes to graduate.
James de la Nueve
Last December, James was attending Santa Monica College, trying to restart his life after getting kicked out of his last school. That's not his real name. He came up with a new name to signal his new beginning, a new James. And he was determined to get it right this time, despite being homeless.
“Every day is a constant reminder like the world is just hammering at you. You don’t have a place to stay,” he said. “It’s like you’re in class and it’s the only thing you’re thinking about. It’s hard to focus on the chalkboard.”
When we met him, James was living in a shelter specifically for college students, run by other college students. But he was going to have to move out by the end of the spring semester, and the deadline was paralyzing.
James started skipping class. He got in trouble with shelter staff. After our special aired last year, James stopped returning emails, then shut down his email address altogether. The shelter said he had “transitioned out,” which most likely means James did not survive his last disciplinary warning.
We looked for James, but then stopped. James had failed at his fresh start, he failed at becoming the new James. We figured it’s best to leave him alone to give him a chance to try again.