Interview with Jennifer Friend
This former “motel kid” graduated law school and made partner. Then she gave it all up to help homeless families.
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When Jennifer Friend was in her formative middle and high school years, she was smart, ambitious and had a supportive mother and father. Unfortunately, she was often also homeless. Or almost, anyway. For much of her school years, Friend was one of Orange County’s “motel kids” – children who live in motels because their parents lack the financial stability to afford a permanent home. Hence, entire families are relegated to a 214-square-foot room with no kitchen, no privacy and an assortment of nefarious characters doing everything from selling drugs and sex to committing violent crimes in the rooms around them. In Friend’s case, the 214 square feet was filled with her father, a technology entrepreneur whose business ventures were sporadic; her mother, a preschool teacher; and three brothers.
It made it a little tough to be a kid, let alone do her math homework.
But somehow Friend not only survived, she excelled. She graduated from high school – then UC Irvine – then Whittier Law School. At age 38, she made partner at the Santa Ana office of Selman Breitman law firm. It was, to say the least, an incredible feat for someone who once considered a closet her room in a one-bedroom apartment her parents managed to rent for a while between hotel stints.
“I was determined. I am sometimes determined to a fault. And my faith had a tremendous amount to do with it. I grew up always believing that I mattered and that I did have a purpose and that I was responsible for fulfilling that purpose,” she says.
That purpose is to help as many as she can of the estimated 28,000 homeless kids in Orange County, many living in motels and shelters, to get a good education. To do it, she left her well-appointed partner’s law office and took over as executive director at Orange County’s Project Hope Alliance – where her office is now used for the school’s kindergarten lunch and music. Project Hope Alliance is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending family homelessness in Orange County by helping kids get an education and families move into permanent housing. They do it through individual, corporate and foundation donors. And the dedicated work from people like Friend.
We sat down with her to ask about her past, and how she’s using it to change the future for so many OC families.
What was the longest period that you lived in a motel as a child?
I was fortunate in that my life didn’t always involve living in a motel. We had times of financial stability and then we had times of real financial instability. So at one point we lived in one motel room for eight months straight. And so I had to make a choice. That either it didn’t matter what I did, that nothing was going to get better, or I could make a conscious decision that I was going to take control of my circumstances and make sure I never had that type of instability as an adult.
Does that experience help you to help the kids you deal with?
Definitely. I know that these kids are at that crossroad and they need to decide that it does matter, and that they matter, and that their education is the one thing they can control and no one can ever take away from them – that they can’t get evicted from their education. If they don’t, the danger is that they internalize all that chaos and give up. We don’t want that to happen.
What are some daily challenges kids who live in motels face?
If you think about everything that goes on in a home, from fights between spouses to teenagers going through transition phases with getting older and needing personal space, with these families that all goes on, but in that one 214-square-foot room. So there’s nowhere for them to hide, to get some privacy. If a child has to sleep because they have a big test in the morning but someone’s watching television, or parents aren’t tired, the child is at the mercy of the others in that room. So before these children even come to school, they face things that sometimes create the need for trauma care, which is why we pay for a full time social worker.
And I assume these motels aren’t exactly family-friendly communities.
Right. Someone in the next room may be a prostitute or a drug dealer. So if there’s something going on in the room next door, the kids hear it. There are even shootings in the parking lots of these motels. These children don’t have the space to just be kids, literally or metaphorically. They don’t have a quiet place to study or to sleep or to dream. That’s why we take a holistic approach, helping the entire family.
Your own family growing up was, if not financially stable, emotionally stable?
Yes. My brothers and I were blessed in that we had two parents who loved us very much. They were engaged and involved in our lives and helped us set and achieve goals. So we were atypical. I haven’t met any families yet that are exactly like my family was.
There are many working poor, stable families stuck in motels, though.
That’s right. I have met at least two single mothers who work full-time. One has been at the same job for over eight years, raising three children on her own, but she just didn’t have enough money for first and last month’s rent and deposit, or good enough credit, to get out of a motel.
And yet, motels seem like a very expensive form of housing.
They are. But these people are living paycheck to paycheck, so that means they don’t have the ability to save anything, especially the first and last month’s rent, plus deposit, it takes to move into their own home. And you might not have a family member or friend who is able to get you out of that motel and into an apartment. When that’s the case, they’re stuck in a position where, even though they’re paying $800 a month for 214 square feet without a kitchen, they can’t get out of it.
So Project Hope Alliance becomes that friend or family member that helps out?
The working mother I spoke of earlier: After an investment by Project Hope (I think the total investment was $1,300) vouching for her, so to speak, with our partnerships with private property owners, we were able to move her and her family that was homeless for over 10 years into permanent housing. She was totally self-sufficient after 45 days. We’re moving another mother of five who works full-time – and is actually being promoted within her organization – into an apartment currently as well. Since March 2012, we will have moved 13 families into permanent housing.
And the children – and their education – is the major part of your foundation.
That’s why Project Hope Alliance exists. We support a school that’s funded by the Orange County Department of Education, and because the school is a county site, it serves children all over the county. So if they don’t have a permanent address – and often a motel doesn’t count – they attend this access site. We also pay for after-school care five days a week and provide transportation to and from the Boys & Girls Club in Tustin. We include tutoring and blended learning and try to catch them up, because on average these kids are two full school years behind. We had a child who just registered for second grade who’s never been in school before.
How did the school start?
In 1989 it started because a teacher noticed that some children were living in motels and they were being forced to move from one hotel to another and sometimes couldn’t go to school because of it. So she started teaching them out of the back of her car. Then Project Hope was formed to take care of those kids. It’s now a public school and an access site. So it’s not designated as a homeless kids school, it’s a de facto homeless kids school just because they don’t have permanent addresses that would put them in a neighborhood school.
How do you get all these kids to school?
Every day, on average, we go to 29 different stops to pick up kids from motels and shelters and bring them to school. That’s because transportation is the largest impediment to these kids attending school consistently. So we pick up the kids starting at 6:30 in the morning, getting them to school at 7:30. After school, we take them to the Boys & Girls Club in Tustin. After that, at about 5 p.m., we drop them off at all the different motels and shelters. So the annual miles that we travel are about 64,000 per year.
How many kids have you helped?
We’ve had over 5,000 children go through our program.
What are Project Hope Alliance’s goals?
Our goal is to make sure that every homeless child in Orange County succeeds academically. Part of the academic success means they have a safe place to sleep at night, their bodies are fueled so their brains can work, they have emotional health, and they have the educational tools that they need to be able to create opportunities and choices for their future.
Was it hard to give up your former career as a successful attorney to do this?
The infrastructure that I had was much more difficult to give up than my personal armor was. I think growing up as a child, I didn’t have a lot of control about what was going on in my daily life, so I created a life that gave me an armor of control – things like going to college, going to law school and becoming a partner before age 40. I think I was trying to eliminate any potential that I would undergo any type of inability to take care of myself or my family. I don’t think it was until I was faced with having an incredibly strong internal pull to take this job full-time that I realized that I had built up that professional armor to protect me from being vulnerable.
Was there a feeling of shame?
Yes. It’s tough as a kid when you can’t have someone over to your house or you can’t have someone call you and chat about boys or whatever. And I think a lot of the professional armor I gave myself was to deal with the shame I felt about not being good enough. But when I started talking about my story it completely liberated my soul and I found that the things that I was so ashamed of are the things that I’m now most proud to use. So there really is power in telling your story because you find out the story isn’t really about you, it’s about other people who don’t have a voice to tell theirs yet. So, honestly, being on the other side of it now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because I wouldn’t be here doing this now. I want to use my oral advocacy skills to speak for people who don’t have a voice.