My Journey from Homeless Youth to Earning an MSW


By Erik James Escareño

Being raised in a family associated with gangs made it difficult to stray onto a different path.

I started using drugs at the age of nine, which progressed into a serious addiction. Growing up, I endured many traumas that was remedied by the use of substances. At age 16, I was a street kid—homeless by choice—and turning tricks to survive. I was in a constant state of self-preservation and self-medicating. One day I was found in a dumpster by the Pasadena police and facing an eight to 12-year prison term. I raised my hand and explained my situation to Judge Morris.

Judge Morris saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself—a future. He sentenced me to treatment, even though my charges were not drug related. That sentence, coupled with my surrender to my addiction, provided me with the opportunity to succeed. Although, treatment was an uphill battle, I was able to get clean after several treatment facilities. My clean date is May 3, 2003.

Since then, my life has completely changed and the change has been for the better. Since that date, I have become an active member of Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which has allowed me to understand the potential that others saw within me. In 2004, I successfully graduated from the Allen House treatment program, which had been part of my sentence. The decision to provide treatment instead of prison time drastically altered my life. Through treatment at the Allen House Program and work with my sponsor, I began to sponsor others who battle addiction. I stayed at the Allen House Transitional Program for an additional eight months until I was able to obtain a suitable living accommodation, all while attending college and working. Maintaining good standing during my probation, Judge Morris then decided to dismiss my case.

Since 2005, when I left the Allen House Program, I have stayed active in the NA community, my own community, and volunteered at different non-profits. I have worked in my field of service mostly in the nonprofit sector and have been lucky enough to work as a teacher for deaf children.

In 2010, I became very ill and lost nearly everything I owned. However, I maintained my determination and recovery. After reopening my case with the Department of Rehabilitation, I was able to go back to school and receive the essential accommodations necessary to achieve higher education. I graduated from Rio Hondo College with an Associate’s Degree in Human Behavior, and at Mt. San Antonio College with an Associate’s Degree in Language Arts in 2012. I then transferred to California State University, Northridge (CSUN) in the fall of 2012. Scared that I did not belong in a university, I was supported by my NA family, friends and some of my family.

In 2015, I graduated with a double Bachelor’s degree in Deaf Studies and Linguistics. I am the first individual in my family to graduate from university. This achievement was done while I was homeless. It was tough, but I worked hard to complete my assignments and received good grades. I began considering applying for the Masters of Social Work (MSW) program at CSUN and to work in the mental health field. I was accepted into the program in the fall of 2015.

I found housing thanks to my therapist, and graduated in 2017 with a MSW degree with Distinction and a GPA of 3.92. I also was awarded a stipend from the Department of Mental Health Los Angeles County. I am a social worker and I strive for social justice and social change.

The last 14 years of my recovery and life have afforded me the privilege to become educated, educate others, and facilitate positive change in people’s lives. The road has been long, and with many hoops to jump through, yet I have persevered and never faltered from being a rehabilitated citizen who gives back to my community.

The person I am today does not reflect the person I once was. I can never forget where I come from or erase my past experiences. Still, my life is enhanced and enriched by the experiences I have had and the person I have become. Often, employers look to my record to define me. It is up to me to prove them otherwise. My record only tells me where my limits are so that I can reach beyond them.