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Commentary: How a former Orange County motel kid is ending homelessness

A 12-year-old girl sitting on a motel bed, surrounded by homework, siblings and parents, all crammed into one small room. A 9-year-old boy entering a classroom with his head down, ashamed to not know where he will sleep tonight.

These are the images of children in Orange County struggling with homelessness — the county's best-kept secret. While we may not see these motel kids along the streets or desperately gripping cardboard signs, they exist in overwhelming abundance.

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Under the area's veil of affluence are the faces of more than 32,500 children experiencing homelessness and 120,000 children living in poverty. They say goodnight from motels, shelters and couches. They are forced to focus on where they will sleep instead of what they will learn. Tragically, their educations and futures suffer.

Years ago, I was one of these faces. For decades I silenced my past as an Orange County motel kid, but in the spring of 2013, I shared my story to spark hope and conversation about childhood homelessness.

A technology entrepreneur, my father experienced unpredictable lapses in income. Although my mother also worked as a preschool teacher, keeping a roof over our family of six proved taxing. While there were periods of financial stability, there were also times of despair.

During my junior high and high school years, my three brothers, our parents and I often packed our lives into 214-square-foot motel rooms. Feelings of shame, lack of privacy, and an economically schizophrenic childhood created an environment where the basic elements of being a kid were sometimes lost, like doing homework.

Childhood homelessness data from the U.S. Department of Education is shocking. According to the department, 1 in 30 children in the country experienced homelessness in 2013.

On a local level, here in Orange County, it's 1 in 6. California has the largest population of homeless children in America, and Orange County has more homeless students than the state average and neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties, per the California Department of Education.

The effects of youth homelessness are devastating, ranging from chronic emotional stress and physical malnourishment to significant academic gaps and difficulty making friends. In comparison with their peers, children experiencing homelessness are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school, and three times more likely to be placed in special education programs, according to The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness.

But there is hope.

At Project Hope Alliance we start with the kids. Our goal is to make sure that every homeless child in Orange County succeeds academically.

Our impactful, two-generational approach ends homelessness today by rapidly rehousing the families we serve and helping them achieve financial independence. We end the cycle of generational homelessness tomorrow by empowering our kids with a unique academic program lovingly tailored to their skills and strengths.

Three especially notable programs are our innovative Bright Start Pilot Program, Promoter Pathway program at Newport Harbor High School, and our core Family Stability Program.

Since 2012, we have ended homelessness for more than 700 kids and parents by stabilizing families in their own homes and providing their children with an exceptional education.

Take my story as an example of the boundless power of faith, hope and determination. Since graduating from UC Irvine and Whittier Law School, becoming a partner at a large law firm before age 40, then leaving the practice of law to proudly serve as Project Hope Alliance's CEO, I have realized that my story is not about me. I just happen to be the one with a voice right now to communicate that a child's future should never be determined by their parents' economic circumstances.

I look ahead to our third annual gala on April 17 with hope and purpose. Project Hope Alliance exists to mend the chaos in the lives of children and families struggling with homelessness, and to ensure that they never, ever give up.

Learn more about how we are ending the cycle of homelessness, one child at a time, at projecthopealliance.org.

JENNIFER FRIEND is CEO of the Project Hope Alliance.

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