A light in the dark

Candlelight vigil focuses on importance of education for homeless youth

Oscar Rodriguez shares his experiences as a homeless and foster youth at a recent candlelight vigil held in honor of National Homeless and Runaway Youth Month.

Oscar Rodriguez shares his experiences as a homeless and foster youth at a recent candlelight vigil held in honor of National Homeless and Runaway Youth Month.

Photo by Ken Smith

Oscar Rodriguez stood on the steps of the Chico City Council chambers on Nov. 16 in front of a crowd of about two dozen people, all holding candles. There, he shared stories about his formative years spent in group homes and on the streets of San Diego and Los Angeles. The young man’s voice remained unwavering as he spoke about his past difficulties, only cracking with emotion when he recalled the names of mentors and teachers who helped him get his life on track.

“My own life had struggles that may have seemed insurmountable without having the people who stood by my side for years,” he said at the candlelight vigil observing November as National Homeless and Runaway Youth Month.

“I started from meager beginnings, struggling for food and shelter,” Rodriguez recounted. “Stability was fragile in my life, and going to school didn’t seem like a priority. Taking care of my family, especially my mother, seemed more worthy, but as the years went on I could no longer shoulder the weight of the responsibilities.”

Rodriguez said a handful of educators inspired him “through the moments I couldn’t see clearly through the darkness, and gave me the passion, the inspiration and some light to guide myself by.” He eventually made it through community college and currently works as a tutor for the Butte County Office of Education’s School Ties Program. He’s also attending Chico State through the Promoting Achievement Through Hope (PATH) Scholars Program, which provides support and resources for current or former foster youth seeking higher education.

“Each child out there who sleeps in foster or group homes or in distress needs that light to be given to them, the hope needed to shine brightly and have the opportunity to truly be part of this greater society,” he said. “We cannot close our eyes to these issues, even though they’re hard to bear.”

The event was organized and emceed by Josh Indar, a tutoring coordinator for School Ties who also works with advocacy organization Youth for Change. Also present were representatives from the Chico City Council and police department, service providers from the 6th Street Center for Youth and Chico State, as well as several young people who have been homeless or are currently experiencing homelessness.

One of the event’s goals was to spread awareness about the prevalence of homelessness among youth, locally and beyond. The BCOE estimates there are currently between 800 and 1,200 homeless youth in Butte County schools, accounting for those who live on the streets without adult supervision—known as “unaccompanied youth”—and those who live in shared or otherwise unstable housing. The 6th Street Center for Youth has reported assisting more than 250 homeless or marginally housed young people between the ages of 14 and 25 annually for the last several years.

At the vigil, Indar reported that the latest estimates place California’s homeless youth population at about 200,000, and more than 2 million in the United States and Canada. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that families have overtaken single men as the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.

Other events focused on homeless youth in November included a storytelling event (Chico Tellebration!, on Nov. 13), a choral concert (Nov. 18) and official proclamations in observation of National Homeless and Runaway Youth Month issued by the cities of Chico, Paradise and Oroville.

“They’re our kids, they’re your grandkids, they’re your kids’ friends and classmates,” Indar told the crowd at the vigil. “We want to take care of them, we want to make sure that they’re OK, and we want to make sure they have the same opportunities as everyone else who happens to have a home.”

Indar and other speakers at the vigil emphasized the importance of education in overcoming youth homelessness. PATH Scholars Program Coordinator Marina Fox also spoke, and focused on resources available for college students such as financial aid, housing, social support and “caring staff and faculty that want to see students succeed.” She urged those younger than college age to stay in school and contact School Ties or other programs to help them make it through.

“While you’re going through some extremely tough challenges to meet your basic needs, remember the stability that education can offer, in the present and in the future,” Fox said.

The final address of the evening was by Chico City Councilman Randall Stone. Stone mentioned recent numbers provided by the Torres Community Shelter (which the CN&R confirmed with the shelter’s executive director, Brad Montgomery) indicating the facility served 123 children from 70 families in the fiscal year that ended in September, compared to 87 children in 54 families the year before.

Stone also spoke about education in a different sense—the need to educate policy makers at local, state and national levels about the problem and possible solutions. Pointing toward City Hall, he said, “The people that work in here, myself included, need to understand how pervasive this problem is and how much it continues to grow.

“I’m not picking on my city or fellow council members or the nature of the political environment nationally, but the fact of the matter is … people don’t understand what solutions are available and they don’t fully understand or appreciate how to get the job done.

“Look out for each other,” Stone said in conclusion. “If you know homeless youth or are a homeless youth, reach out. There shouldn’t be anyone living on the street in this country, and especially not kids.”