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Growing Up Homeless

— When Jennifer Stoneburner graduated from San Diego State University last year, she had everything going for her: good grades, a steady circle of friends, involvement in campus organizations and a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

But what many didn't know was that Stoneburner's promising future was a far cry from her past. She had grown up homeless on the streets of San Diego.

Her parents split when she was 11, and Stoneburner’s mom took the kids, leaving Arizona for California. Stoneburner, her mom and younger brother lived in their car for the next four years, occasionally scrounging up enough money to get a cheap motel room. Eventually, the Stoneburners heard about San Diego's Monarch School – a school that exclusively serves homeless children and provides them with necessary resources. Lured by the promise of free food and bus passes, Stoneburner and her brother enrolled.

"I wasn’t doing very well at the time," she said. "I was using drugs and ditching school. I would just go to get food and free stuff."

But then came the reality check. Mom continued to battle with drug addiction. And when one of her mom's acquaintances overdosed and died in their hotel room, police took the kids away.

"We were placed with a strict foster family, and that forced us to get clean," Stoneburner said.

She also landed her first job at age 16, working as a peer adviser at San Diego’s Storefront Shelter , a facility serving homeless and runaway youth.

Things were looking up until charges against Stoneburner’s mom were dropped a year later. This allowed the family to reunite, and Stoneburner to slip back into her old behavior.

It wasn’t until her boss at the Storefront took her in for a serious intervention that Stoneburner began to see the full picture.

"He took me into his office and said ‘I think you’ve relapsed. I ran out of there crying. But I knew he was right," Stoneburner said. "They could have fired me, but they chose to give me another chance. They believed in me. That was 11 years ago, and I’m still working here today."

Stoneburner says that it was a fear of disappointing them that drove her to turn her life around. She began focusing on her studies at Monarch, motivated by the constant check-ins on behalf of the Storefront staff.

"It wasn’t just, ‘Don’t be late to school.’ It was, ‘Tell me about your finals.' Their expectations kept me straight," she said.

And even though Stoneburner faced the temptations of life on the street almost daily, she clearly remembers the day she made the decision not to give in anymore.

"I had a group of friends that had a master key to a car. It opened every make and model of a certain car, and they were going joyriding," said Stoneburner. "I wanted to go so bad. But I thought, ‘If my boss knew I was riding around in a stolen vehicle, he would be so disappointed.' So I didn’t," she said.

It’s a choice that many homeless youth eventually have to make. Tara Barrows, program coordinator at Monarch, said she admires that many of them decide to take the path to education.

"No matter how a family ends up homeless, it’s never the kids' fault. The kids are always innocent," said Barrows. "So for the kids to really recognize that an education is the way out of the situation and to commit themselves to that, that’s really an achievement in itself."

After graduating from Monarch, Stoneburner went on to complete her undergraduate studies at San Diego City College before enrolling at SDSU.

Her experiences on the street – coupled with her psychology degree – has Stoneburner working full-time as a case worker at the Storefront. She provides counsel to homeless children -- just like the staff members who once counseled her.

Her daily duties include working closely with the 12-to-17 year old homeless youths. Stoneburner charts their path after they leave the Storefront, and coordinates arrangements with shelters, schools, foster families and job agencies. She's now responsible for deciding the best course for the kids and starting them on that path.

It’s a job that Stoneburner finds to be truly satisfying. She says she's come full circle -- becoming one of the very staffers that she says changed her life as a youth. Now she's paying the favor forward.

"I want to help other kids that were like me. I know what they’re going through, and I see a lot of my experiences in them," Stoneburner said. "I want to give them the stable environment that they need to grow. Because that’s what the Storefront gave me."

Melissa Harrison is a student at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at SDSU

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