At 17 years old, Brian Gamboa walked for more than two hours to school each day.
Turned out of his home and barely managing to pay rent on a basement apartment, Gamboa needed help, but he did not know where he could turn. Then, he found Alternative House.
Even in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, Gamboa’s situation is not unique. Gamboa counted among 2,449 students who were identified as homeless by the Fairfax County school system during the 2012-13 school year. He was also one of the 369 students identified as living without parent or guardian support.
Alternative House’s Homeless Youth Initiative works to support that group of students living out on their own.
“There is a real need, and we’re working as hard as we can to make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks,” said Judith Dittman, executive director of Alternative House.
Working with county school officials, who keep a tally of all students they identify as homeless throughout the year, the nonprofit organization searches for these students and offers stability, providing housing placement or rent subsidies as well as counseling to help them finish high school.
Gamboa attended the Computer Enhanced Instruction (CEI) program in Fairfax, an alternative high school program for at-risk youth who cannot succeed in a traditional school setting. In his junior year, he bucked the control of his mother and stepfather and left his family’s home.
Soon, instructors noticed him falling asleep in class, too tired from late nights working at Wendy’s and the six-mile morning walks from his basement apartment in Burke. His counselor approached him, and he shared his story with her.
“I talked to my counselor and I told her my problems, and I think that’s what you need to do: Just tell somebody,” Gamboa said. “It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s not going to help you to keep it to yourself. You have to do something.”
His counselor pointed him toward the Homeless Youth Initiative. Alternative House has been serving Fairfax County since 1972, when it started as an emergency shelter for runaway teens. Since then, it has added other programs to help children in high-poverty communities and young mothers.
The Homeless Youth Initiative, now in its fifth year, is the newest to join the slate. Its goal is to help students living on their own, without a parent or guardian, to find safe, affordable housing and complete high school.
Alternative House works as a nonprofit partner of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. Since that office formed in 2008, homelessness decreased by 26 percent in the county, according to its director Dean Klein.
However, at the same time, numbers of homeless students have increased. In the 2011-12 school year, the number of homeless youth crested 2,500 for the first time ever before dipping below that mark last year.
“Homelessness is not always visible to people in the community, so these numbers and the programs like Alternative House are important as reminders to people that we’re not done with this work yet,” Klein said.
Through the Homeless Youth Initiative, between July 2012 through June 2013, 30 students including Gamboa received housing support. In addition, 55 students received case management, which meant Alternative House counselors tracked their situation and checked in to make sure their situations remained stable.
Through his junior and senior year, Gamboa received a rent subsidy that allowed him to find a better job at a Giant grocery store and to not only fully pay his rent but even start saving money. Just as important, he said, were the program’s counselors, who called and stopped by to check on him and taught him how to budget his time and his paycheck.
“They give their lives to help you,” Gamboa said. “That’s how I felt. You feel like you cannot get lost that way.”
Last year, Gamboa received his high school diploma. In October, he joined the National Guard, and he just returned from several months of training.
“When I look at these kids, I’m so proud,” Dittman said. “We’re telling kids, ‘You can do it.’ We help young people reach the goals they have for themselves.”