- Eastern Group Publications/EGPNews - http://egpnews.com -

Montebello Center Takes In Homeless Students

East Los Angeles College business major Kevin faced a tough decision this year: move with his family to Victorville where housing is cheaper, or continue his studies here without a stable place to live.

Esperanza Ortega allows vendors at her internet cafe and resource center in East Los Angeles, which helps homeless students. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

School won out, but the choice left him homeless. The 24-year old, who asked that we not use his real name because he worries what people will say about him, says he is “so close to finishing” school.

He is now staying at a shelter in Bell where he endures cold showers and guards his personal items from being stolen. He rations out his funds to pay for tuition and bus tickets, and buys gel inserts for his shoes to cushion his feet from blisters when he walks long distances.

He is looking for a job, but worries that working could distract him or delay his studies indefinitely.

Kevin’s is a common story, says Esperanza Ortega, an ELAC student herself who works as a case manager at the Los Angeles courts. In her free time she runs Hook Up, the Internet cafe and resource center she started in Montebello to help veterans and homeless students.

She says the students are choosing homelessness for “cultural reasons,” torn as to whether they should even be students because they feel they should be providing for their families instead.

They feel “they are too old to be taken care of by their families, and they dismiss themselves from the family,” she said.

The shelves at Hook Up are stacked with toiletries and school supplies. Ortega makes the center inviting with plush sofas, walls decorated with art. There are spacious tables and laptops for students to use for studying, and she offers food and snacks for a nominal charge.

Ortega can usually be found on the phone or the computer helping students navigate and follow up on the complex network of social services, or reading and polishing up their resumes. She helps them prep for job interviews, search for financial aid and scholarships, and solicit donations of food and everyday necessities. In at least one case, she has helped a student get access to needed medical treatment and healthcare.

While there are shelters and services on Skid Row, Ortega wanted to locate the center closer to ELAC, and in an environment that feels safer.

Kevin said he considered staying overnight in abandoned homes or at the airport as a few of his friends were doing: but that was before he found about the center.

On his very first visit, they started the process of getting him set up at the Bell shelter, which required sitting through interviews and filling out applications.

“It felt like a home… they gave me Cup of Noodles, and I went on the computer and checked out Dragonball Z,” an animated television show he used to enjoy watching, he said.

Kevin said he is grateful that Ortega and her fiancé William Velazquez were persistent in securing him a place to stay.

“They didn’t stop at just one place. They kept making calls,” he said.

Ortega opened the center in March; a few months after last year’s Occupy ELAC encampment broke up. As one of its organizers, she brought living essentials and cooked for her fellow students.

Ortega says that’s when she noticed that many of the participants were not camping out to support the movement, but because they had no other place to go.

So, as Occupy ELAC packed up its tents and shut down, she was thinking about opening a homeless shelter or purchasing a house for the students; options that proved to be either too expensive or involved too much red tape, she said.

Ortega believes more and more students are starting to feel like burdens to their families. She said one of her close friends is having financial difficulties because of the economy, which has forced some students to drop out for a few semesters to work before returning to study. Many of them may not know about some of the assistance that is available to them, she said.

Meanwhile, Kevin continues to adjust to life on his own. “I feel like I’ve been gone forever,” he says about his family. His mother, who is disabled, tells him she’s worried about him when they talk on the phone. In turn, he worries about his sister, who much like him when he was younger, may find out too late the importance of doing well in school.

Another aspect of his new life he struggles with — calling friends to ask for help. “Why not call a person to see how they’re doing? Instead of calling them and saying, can you help me?”

The Hook Up Internet & Resource Center is located at 923 W. Whittier Blvd, Montebello, CA and can be reached on the Route 10 bus of the Montebello Bus Lines. Their hours are usually 10am to 10pm. The center regularly holds events, including swapmeets, fundraisers and donation drives featuring music and art. Their next art show is Dec. 15. For more information, call (323) 516-6382 or visit their website at http://www.thehookupresourcecntr.org/