text and photography
by Celeste Drake
“I’m just a girl from South Central, creating a life for myself in a society that is not made to support me or my ideals. I create and find my own support. I continue to gain the knowledge I need to put my ideals into actions.”
K’lema Burleson, a junior anthropology major at the University of La Verne, has spent much of her undergraduate career experiencing homelessness. She went through the struggles of being a full-time student, regularly attending her classes, all while wondering where she and her mother’s next meal was going to come from. Everyday, at the start and end of each day, she would make the trip to and from the van she called—and may again in the future—call home.
K’lema lived with her mother Kori Jackson and briefly with her father. Despite her situation, she graduated from Victor Valley High School, earning almost straight A’s in her school work. She applied to ULV and, to her great joy, she was accepted. Then came the logistical reality of how to attend the University. For $300, her mother bought an old Dodge Chinook van so she could be close to the University. To pay for gas, they applied for welfare. They would receive $200 monthly and $100-200 in food stamps. The intent was to live in the van, since gaining housing was completely out of their budget. Her transient life began fall 2016, after a multi-month, arduous journey with a vehicle that could hardly move, to bring it to La Verne.
Finally, K’lema and Kori arrived in the La Verne area just before school started. The plan was for the two to live in the van, which was outfitted with a bed, a camp style stove, and a small toilet and heater. It was moved often but parked at night near Arrow Highway, where Pomona meets La Verne. It is now moved daily to avoid any fines or tickets.
During her entire 2016-17 freshman year of college, K’lema lived in the small van. Her transient lifestyle came with unforeseen hardships not known to most undergraduates. K’lema maintained her appearance in regards to how she dressed, her reference to self and her daily life. Her goal was to appear that she had a normal home life. All around her, she heard students conversing about going to restaurants, going to concerts, going to Disneyland—all being impossibilities for K’lema. Just maintaining a lifestyle that allowed her to attend La Verne was a huge effort. In keeping up a normal appearance, she did not want people to see her taking a shower in the women’s locker room, getting a mountain of food from the dining hall for both her and her mother, or being seen living in her van. She would get up early every day to avoid people, come up with excuses as to why she could not stay on campus late, and still catch the bus back to her van on time.
Entertainment was another hardship, as residing in a van limits leisure activities. After her classes, she would go back to the women’s locker room where she kept her things for the day. Her free, government issued phone is her one luxury. With the University’s Wi-Fi, she began downloading movies and episodes from television shows, so that she could later watch them in her van. The download process frustrated her at times. “It really made me angry sometimes, and I would wonder why I was doing it. Sometimes, I would quit and get back to the van and have nothing to do,” says K’lema. When she was unable to bring back sufficient entertainment, she would take her skateboard out and go for a ride.
Having adequate lighting in the van was also a struggle. “Honestly the lighting was crap,” K’lema says. Electricity did not run through the van. She and her mother had to put up small battery-powered LED lights to hang inside the van in order to have minimal lighting. They also placed lamps where they could. K’lema says she could not do her homework assignments at times because of the inadequate lighting, as she did not own a computer.
K’lema was strategic in obtaining necessities. Items such as hygiene products, blankets, warm clothing and food came through donations. Most of the items originally came into their possession when the two lived near Skid Row in Los Angeles. K’lema and Kori would attain goods and food through churches or from charity organizations. More recently, K’lema received essentials through free giveaways sponsored by clubs and organizations at the University.
She went through a long process of finding the correct administrators, who care for diversity and are willing to help her out of her situation. In working toward a more stable situation, she began networking. She found staff and administrators who would make things happen for her, or point her in the right direction. “I got out of my situation because of the great people at ULV,” says K’lema. She counts people in key positions for reversing her life situation. The Housing staff was willing to work with her and found her a scholarship and loans in order to allow her to live on campus. K’lema says she was able to get room and board covered through her openness about her situation.
K’lema is now a third year student living in the Oaks Residence Hall. She says overall “things are smooth and comfortable—no more stress and odd routines.” Food is now predictable. Her showers are a lot more comfortable. She feels that she has adapted to dorm living nicely and is happy on campus as a full-time student. She is a student lead with the Leo Food Pantry, a position she relishes. She gained this job through her relationship with Dr. Zandra Wagoner, University chaplain, a person she cites as helpful in her transition from the streets. “I combine my love of people, food and justice [through this job],” K’lema says. The position runs hand in hand with her personal promise to give back to the campus, because of how much it has given her.
K’lema plans to graduate from La Verne as soon as possible and join the Peace Corps. “Why burden myself timewise and financially when I have the capability to graduate early. I’m not afraid of my life anymore; I’m not ashamed of my life anymore. My life is satisfying and something I want to focus on now.” She plans on eventually attending graduate school for anthropology. K’lema wants to build her relationship with her high school boyfriend, who has at times stayed with her in her van, and she wants to build her relationship with herself. “Building a relationship with myself is getting out of the constraints of the whole secondary institution mentality. The college persona constrains me, mentally, physically. I just want to explore myself as a human being and with nature.” She feels that she has put so much into her education and would now like to take a vacation. Her long-term goal is to build a sustainable, eco-friendly home that she can travel with.
K’lema’s mother, Kori, is now very much independent. She depends less on K’lema. “I want to take care of [my mom]. I did my part in holding up both of us the last two years.” She says, however, they are still always on the same schedule. “If she needs me, I’m always on call. We’re very much partners, almost like business partners.”
One of the most important people to help K’lema out of her situation was Juan Regalado, dean of students. K’lema describes him as a “cheerleader type person.” At the University there is a program called CARE (Campus Assessment Response and Evaluation), which is a group of individuals working on campus who are dedicated to assisting students in distress. Juan works with this program and says, “Sometimes the student may need support as related to a specific incident. Sometimes the support needs to be more ongoing. I’ve come to believe that many of these students just need an opportunity to shine.”
Julia Wheeler, director of church and interfaith relations and a spiritual guide of K’lema’s, is of significance to her as well. Julia would check in on her and ask, “How her spirit was,” K’lema says. Julia taught her methods of thinking of herself in nature, of de-stressing. “I think that’s really what made it easy for me to be in the van. She made me feel my place in nature.” K’lema says Julia taught her about healing the body through the mind, that everything will be OK as long as one is happy and in the right mindset.
K’lema sought help from Zandra as well, because of her desire to be a part of the University’s Summer Service program. Zandra recalls the day she met K’lema, laughing and smiling at the memory. “I just remember the day she came up [the stairs of my office]. She was a freshman. She stood at the bottom of the stairs. She was like ‘Ahhh, you’re Zandra. Oh, my gosh, I’ve been wanting to meet you.’” Zandra describes her as a ball of energy. She believes that K’lema’s spirit is beautiful and her energy is genuine. “When she’s expressing happiness or joy, it’s coming from deep inside her. There’s a lot of people that are team K’lema, and she’s taken that support and really done something with it.”
Although K’lema is grateful for all the support she has received at this school, she is still wary for her future. Even once she graduates, she does not know where she is going. “[ULV] is comfortable, and I appreciate that. But it’s still instability. I don’t have a ‘home home’ to go back to.”
To the ULV homeless student population, K’lema says, “No matter how low you get, whether it be poverty, homelessness, hunger or medical issues, that’s the moment when you are most powerful. And with each success, you’ll look back on that moment and realize nothing could be worse, yet motivate you more.” ■