Jennifer Friend, CEO of Project Hope Alliance, poses for a portrait at the organization's headquarters in Costa Mesa. Project Hope Alliance is working on ending homelessness for 28,000 children in Orange County. Among its partners are nonprofits Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and Art & Creativity for Healing Inc. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / March 3, 2014)

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Even now, Jennifer Friend wonders if her former classmates from sixth and seventh grades bought the stories she would spin.

Growing up, she masked her family's financial instability and episodic homelessness by claiming that her phone wasn't working or that she was house-sitting. She wanted to avoid visits and sleepovers at all costs.

"Really, it didn't matter if they [believed me] or not," she said. "I was just too ashamed to tell them the truth."

Friend and her three brothers, who split their youths between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, were raised by a technology-entrepreneur father and a mother who taught preschool. When her father's business did well, the family stayed afloat. When it didn't, neither did they, forcing them to take shelter at friends' homes and in motels.

"I would try to gauge if we were close to being evicted by looking through the mail, paying attention to what was or was not in the refrigerator, being aware of where we did or did not drive to because of gas money and if our utilities were or were not connected," Friend said.

"This is all to say that while I was incredibly blessed to have loving, nurturing and engaged parents, for a kid, I had a lot on my mind."

It's no wonder that now the Costa Mesa resident's thoughts are about other similarly-afflicted children. Today, every email that takes flight from her inbox is signed "For the kids."

Friend is the chief exective of Project Hope Alliance, an Orange County-based nonprofit striving to end homelessness for an estimated 28,000 children in the area. She zealously oversees all efforts to not only educate them but also help their families move from shelters into homes.

Many youngsters ages 10 to 18 tend to be concerned about making the football team, cheerleading squad or student council or participating in the yearbook, Friend said. By contrast, those eligible for aid from Project Hope Alliance and its partner agencies worry about whether they will have dinner each night or a place to get a few hours' sleep.

"This leaves little room or energy for doing math homework, dreaming of becoming a scientist or learning how to play a musical instrument," Friend remarked. "I know that because I once 'had a lot on my mind,' I am passionately protective over what the children that we serve have on their minds."

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Hope for 500

The board members of Project Hope Alliance made a bold move earlier this year. The organization, established in 1989 by elementary school teacher Ann Robinson, who tutored students residing in motels, announced its "Hope for 500 Campaign" — an intent to end homelessness for 500 children and their families in Orange County by the end of 2014.

The program will work on increasing the education level and skills of parents to increase their earning potential and confidence in their parenting. It also includes tutoring, educational advocacy, counseling and other academic enrichment opportunities for students.

Many of the people with whom Friend works take refuge in transitional, or temporary, housing. Others pack their families tightly into one-bedroom houses.

She has found that such situations are caused — and sustained over long periods of time — by bad credit scores, perhaps an eviction notice at some point, and an inability to save a deposit and first and last month's rent. So the families shell out about $1,200 monthly for motel lodging instead.

Friend added that the recession wiped out jobs in industries like construction. Also, close to 30% of the parents with whom her team works have not passed ninth grade. The prevalence of undereducation encouraged Project Hope Alliance to partner with the Clinton Global Initiative to help these adults get their high school diplomas.

By way of its year-old Family Stability Program, Project Hope Alliance works with property managers and apartment owners in backing low-income families who may have poor credit and even providing the first and last month's rent for them. It costs $1,500 per child — a total of move-in costs, utility assistance and rental support — to place a family in a permanent home. Of those families that work with Project Hope Alliance, 77% become financially independent within a year, Friend said.

When she joined Project Hope Alliance in 2013, the organization was serving about 65 children, all of whom attended one school. Now it works with children attending 39 campuses scattered across 21 cities in the county, and even offers transportation to and from school for some of them.

"I can't wait to see how many kids we are serving in 2015," Friend said.