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High School Student Goes From Homeless to Hopeful

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Jennifer is a senior at Richmond High School. She spent two years living in a garage with her family. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Jennifer is a senior at Richmond High School. Just a few weeks ago, she put on a sparkly pink dress and went to prom -- a quintessential high school experience.

But most of the time, Jennifer feels much, much older. She remembers a happy childhood with her older brothers and her parents. There were trips to Toys "R" Us, a comfortable home, and a lot of love.

But her life started changing when her father’s construction company hit hard times. The family lost their home. And her parents had nowhere to turn for help. They’re both undocumented. That’s why we’re only using Jennifer’s first name for this story.

Things got even worse, Jennifer says, during her sophomore year, when one day, their landlord pulled up to their house. She shared her story as as part of KQED's Youth Takeover Week.

Jennifer (second from left) at her high school prom. (Mario Valencia)

"He has white hair, blue eyes and a white, bushy mustache and he walked up to me and said 'hey could you like call out your mom,'" Jennifer remembers.

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The landlord told Jennifer's mother that he was no longer interested in renting his house to them. He was going to sell the house and told the family they had three months to leave. If they weren't out in three months, the landlord said he'd call the sheriff.

Jennifer was stunned. "I felt the world go silent in my head. All these thoughts kind of flashed through, like 'what’re we going to do? Where are we going to go?'"

Two weeks later, the landlord returned with a proposal: If Jennifer's father fixed up the house for free, the family could live in the garage behind the house.

But this wasn't a generous offer. Jennifer says the garage was basically uninhabitable.

"The floor was kind of this old concrete. It was like a dark-gray brown color," Jennifer recalls. "No matter how much you washed it, it wouldn’t go away. I would usually take turns either sleeping on the old mattress that was there, or I slept on the concrete floor that was piled on with a bunch of blankets. Even though there was like many blankets you could still feel the hard floor on your back. Since there was no electricity or no actual windows you didn't know the time of day. It was so dark that if you would extend your hand out and just stare at it, you couldn't even see the outline of your hand."

While living in the garage, Jennifer's grades dropped significantly. She even failed a couple of semesters. She was also ashamed of her living situation, and that was getting to her. She was starting to spiral into depression.

"I was scared that people wouldn't understand or would just like tease me for it. I would stare at people and just see how they would smile and laugh and just like not have like a single care in the world. And I was just like, 'Why was it me that had to deal with all this?'"

And then, when it felt like things couldn't get worse, Jennifer's mom was hospitalized with septicemia.

"Septicemia is a condition where there is an infection somewhere in your body that is not treated," Jennifer explains. "So that infection starts spreading out and gets even more serious when it gets into your bloodstream."

Her mother going to the hospital hit Jennifer hard.

"I thought she wasn't going to make it. Like all of these ideas just started flashing through my head like, 'This could be like the last time I see her.'"

At the same time, her father slowly started to drift away from the family.

"He would stay out long nights, like drinking, trying to cope with the situation," Jennifer says. "And that just kind of led me into like a deeper depression."

Jennifer and her family endured living in the garage behind their old house for nearly two years. But early in the morning one day, they got a call. Their application to rent a beautiful three-bedroom house was accepted.

These days, Jennifer’s taking online courses to make up for the classes she failed a few years back. If she passes them, she’ll graduate high school in June. Her mother's health is much better now, and her father is a big part of their family again. In the future, she says, she wants to be a journalist, an animator or a property owner -- so she can give folks like her family a place to live, she explains.

Reflecting on the years living in the garage, Jennifer says she has learned a lot of lessons. One, she says, is to always stay positive toward people, no matter how they treat you. Another lesson is to not take things for granted. Especially family.

"I’m grateful for the family I have. Because no matter the situation that happened or the things that we went through, we stayed together in a way." she says. "Yeah, they can’t give you everything in the world, but they wish they could. And that’s what’s important."

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