‘Nobody could be more worthy,’ documentarian says of student who grew up homeless in Orange County

Dilan Oezkan stands next to a fence surrounding the site of the now-razed Costa Mesa Motor Inn, which provided inexpensive rooms to his family when he was a boy. Oezkan grew up homeless, moving from motel to motel with his family as a child.
(Don Leach / Times OC)

With the solemn expression of someone lost in a memory, Dilan Oezkan gazed at the vacant lot where the Costa Mesa Motor Inn once stood.

“This is the place where I first realized I was homeless and what that meant,” he said.

The now-defunct motel — once a hotbed for drug dealing and prostitution — served as Oezkan’s home from ages 8 to 10. He lived in countless motels throughout his childhood, but the Motor Inn remains the one he remembers most.

Returning to the site for the first time recently, Oezkan wondered what became of the other motel kids who used to live there, whether they overcame vast odds and found their way out of poverty.

“This brings back loads of hardship and struggle,” Oezkan, now 18, said. “But I never thought I would be where I am now.”

Dilan Oezkan walks along the fence, remembering what it was like to live in the now torn down Costa Mesa Motor Inn property in Costa Mesa. He was able to fight his way out of poverty and get his own apartment. He will soon attend college.
(Don Leach / Times OC)

Fleeing a situation he described as abusive, Oezkan came to the United States in 2005 from Germany with his mother and siblings.

“We had no money,” Oezkan said. “We were instantly homeless when we landed.”

The Oezkans spent two years in Texas homeless shelters. When the shelters were at capacity, Oezkan slept outside with the other boys and men.

Oezkan’s mother met the man who would eventually become her children’s stepfather at one of the shelters, and they all moved to Orange County in 2007 to be closer to his family.

Oezkan’s childhood was defined by instability, living in motels throughout the county and sleeping in bedrooms with his four siblings.

He attended seven elementary and six middle schools.

“It was rough as a kid,” Oezkan said. “Switching schools and leaving friends was hard. It was embarrassing to go to school a lot of the time because I was wearing clothes where my shorts were up to my thighs, and my jacket was longer than my shorts, so it looked like I wasn’t wearing any pants. I would get made fun of a lot for looking homeless.”

Dilan Oezkan at school in a scene from the film, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” by Alexandra Pelosi.
(Courtesy of Dilan Oezkan)

While living at the Motor Inn, Oezkan and his family were featured in a 2010 documentary by Alexandra Pelosi, “Homeless: the Motel Kids of Orange County.” The film depicted the struggles of homeless children living in one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

There were 27,119 homeless students countywide in the 2016-17 school year, according to the Orange County Department of Education. They made up 5.5% of the 490,430 enrolled students. OCDE spokesman Ian Hanigan said the 2017-18 numbers have yet to be released.

Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Oezkan has maintained contact with her since her documentary was filmed.

“A lot of these kids, the light had gone out in their life by age 10, but Dilan still had that spark,” Pelosi said. “Dilan had dreams — all kinds of fantastic dreams about living in a big house and how he’d make it out. But the rest of them didn’t even dream. Their souls were already crushed by age 10.”

“I was 10 years old, so it was fun to have the camera follow me around,” Oezkan said. “Years later I was like, ‘Oh it was actually a documentary about the big struggles of my life.’ Now every time I watch the documentary I break down and cry.”

Though his stepfather was unemployed for some time, Oezkan’s mother worked as a certified nursing assistant. Even so there were times when the family didn’t have enough money for a motel and slept outdoors.

Despite the lack of constancy, Oezkan and his sister Celine Oezkan studied all the time. From early on, both realized that education was the key to escaping the cycle of homelessness.

Trials continued when Oezkan’s mother kicked him out at age 15 following a disagreement. He was able to stay with friends until the Illumination Foundation, an Orange-based nonprofit, started funding an apartment for him in Costa Mesa about a year ago.

“Dilan is such an incredible young man,” said Paul Leon, president and chief executive of the Illumination Foundation. “He’s had the hardest of the hard in his life. He was able to be so resilient, despite constantly being faced with different obstacles. He understood early on that he needed to get an education. For him to stick with it under those incredible odds, it’s a tribute to his spirit and fortitude.”

Dilan Oezkan, left, with his brother Ben at school in a scene from the film, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” by Alexandra Pelosi.
(Courtesy of Dilan Oezkan)

Oezkan will graduate from Saddleback High School in Santa Ana with a 4.4 weighted GPA. He was recently presented with a certificate of recognition for his academic performance in the face of adversity by Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do.

“As we make monumental progress on homelessness in Orange County, Dilan’s story is a reminder to us all about what can be accomplished,” Do said. “Dilan’s work ethic, positive attitude and perseverance is an inspiration to us all.”

Oezkan plans to attend college in the fall. He’s been accepted to San Francisco State, Cal Poly Pomona and Sacramento State, and is still waiting to hear back from Columbia, Penn., Georgetown and USC.

Pelosi wrote him letters of recommendation.

“Dilan still has a tough road ahead of him,” Pelosi said. “There’s that bridge that young people need to cross in order to make it into adulthood. That’s the bridge Dilan is on. It could still go terribly wrong if he doesn’t get the money for college. I just pray he makes it across that bridge.”

Oezkan will be the second of his siblings to attend college. Celine Oezkan attends Chapman University on a full scholarship.

The Costa Mesa Motor Inn before it was demolished last year. Though the motel provided an affordable housing avenue for the homeless, it had become known for attracting crime.
(File photo)

Oezkan plans to double major in political science and history. If he ever reaches elected office he plans to “use my authority toward ending homelessness.”

He currently has scholarships that provide about $6,500 in support each year. To attend the top schools on his list, Oezkan is going to need to secure more financial help. He knows whatever job he gets in college won’t cover tuition.

Pelosi finds her former subject worthy of financial aid.

“Dilan deserves way more than I ever got in my life,” Pelosi said. “If there is meritocracy in America, this kid is going to get into a good college, and he is going to get scholarship money to pay for it. If he doesn’t, it’s a true indictment against the whole system. He did everything that was asked of him. Nobody could be more worthy.”