A Dream Born on Skid Row

According to the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, there are between 1 and 1.7 million youths in the United States who have run away or been forced to leave their homes. Marina Marmolejo ’17 studied homelessness as a health and human sciences major at LMU, and for one of her courses she spent four days living on L.A.’s Skid Row. Marmolejo continued her research on homelessness while earning a master’s degree at the Yale School of Public Health. She since founded DreamKit, a web-based app that connects young people without a place to live with opportunities for mentorship, employment and housing. Elizabeth Bromley ’20 spoke with Marmolejo about youth homelessness.

How does DreamKit work?

DreamKit is an app that assists unstably housed youth. We provide a virtual curriculum to build professional development skills, emotional intelligence skills and everything between. Young people can earn $50 a week by completing activities. Our whole goal right now is focusing on employers and using profiles to help young people get stable employment.

Is DreamKit’s focus specific to Connecticut?

Our test population is New Haven, Connecticut. So, we have folks on our team creating relationships with employers in the area so that DreamKit isn’t just a virtual experience that ends with money at the end of the week. We’re infusing ourselves into people’s daily life in order to see tangible outcomes. 

How do you see the state of youth homelessness in New Haven?

It’s different, for example, than in Los Angeles, where homelessness is more visible because the weather permits it. When you don’t actually see people in encampments, or sleeping on the beaches and in parks, homelessness is kind of “underground.” Overall, the state of youth homelessness is similar. Youth homelessness is sweeping across the country, but the visibility shifts when weather and seasons cause folks to remain indoors for longer periods during the year.

What is a critical feature of youth homelessness that most of us should be more aware of?

The way the frustration of homelessness presents itself in young people can oftentimes feel like disrespect to others. I say that because trauma, when it manifests in the body, brain and spirit, can lead people to become jaded and angry. When you’re experiencing homelessness, you’re the by-product of so many failed systems. And I think when we in the general population look at folks experiencing homelessness, we’re not taking into account the trauma and the failed systems that got them to this point.

How is homelessness among youth different than homelessness among adults?

The resilience of young people. Youths who are homeless have not yet been jaded by systems for long periods of time. When I’ve worked with adults who’ve experienced chronic homelessness, there’s a learned helplessness. That’s really hard to break from. I want to focus on young people because they have their whole life ahead of them. These little tweaks in opportunities, resources and decision making can help elevate them out of the situation. I think the resilience that young people have and their eagerness to put their life back on track are really admirable.

What first interested you in homelessness?

It was an LMU class on the health and well-being of homeless populations. I was interested in questions from a health perspective: What does it mean to be out on the streets and sleep on cement? How does that affect your musculoskeletal health? If you’re only eating at shelters and soup kitchens — iceberg lettuce and over-salted pasta — that could lead to hypertension or diabetes, chronic health conditions you have to deal with and pay for the rest of your life. From a community perspective, an important question is: How have we as policy makers and community members made poor decisions to contribute to homelessness? We tend to blame the individual for poor decision making skills instead of thinking through how we haven’t been as resourceful to minimize the problem.

So, you applied to Yale with the intention of studying homelessness?

Yes, in my application I wrote about my interest in youth homelessness and how it intersected with public health. But I was still unsure about what that meant as a specific career. I just knew the population I wanted to work with, and I wanted to get more skills and a better understanding of how this problem has come to be.

What is your dream for DreamKit?

That it’s a majority youth-led organization that prioritizes young people. Also, to have DreamKit in 10 or more cities in the next 10 years. You have to have goals, but you also can’t be too tied to the path and miss new opportunities that come.

How can local communities better support their homeless youth populations?

There’s a weird stigma about giving poor people money. We have a paternalistic expectation that we know how to spend our money better than people who are low-income, but that doesn’t take into account actual factors of poverty. It’s not just about decision making; there are reasons why people are stuck in low-income situations. They know how to spend their money, they know what they need. I think communities need to explore cash transfers. There’s so much research on unconditional cash transfers and how that can completely catalyze someone and their life and put them on the right track.

Homelessness often seems unsolvable. Do you sometimes worry that homelessness will always be with us?

Absolutely! We’ve been socialized to be fearful about completely reimagining the society we live in. That includes feeling overwhelmed at the thought of ending youth homelessness. I think that’s normal, and I urge folks to dare big enough and not settle for a reality in which existing mass epidemics and public health crises exist. Youth homelessness has been created by failed public policies and stigma, and if we as society have created an environment for youth homelessness to exist, then we can absolutely create a world where it does not exist.

To learn more about DreamKit, go here.