Jessica Franey woke up in the back seat of her car every morning, unsure where she would find her meals and apprehensive about the long day of classes ahead.
“I felt very abandoned as a teenager,” said Franey. “The few months of living this way and sleeping in my car traumatized me.”
Franey, a graduate student at the UCLA School of Law, said the circumstances she faced during high school motivated her to volunteer with the homeless through Homelessness Prevention Clinic. UCLA students who participate in the program volunteer alongside an attorney and offer legal advice to the homeless in Venice Beach and Hollywood.
When Franey was young, her mothers split up. On her eighteenth birthday, Franey moved out of her eight-person household and into her car after she realized the financial strain the single-income family was facing.
Franey said she came to UCLA knowing she wanted to improve homeless people’s lives. As co-director of HPC, she meets new people every week and offers them guidance, by providing legal advice at a Hollywood shelter called Covenant House in Hollywood or by handing out sandwiches in Venice Beach.
Franey said she wants to offer emotional support in addition to legal advice.
“As a homeless person, there’s a perpetual sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a lack of dignity,” Franey said. “People don’t look at you the same way, if they look at you at all.”
In high school, Franey volunteered as a teaching assistant with a school-run program that aimed to help teenage mothers and their children. There, she developed her interest in child development and became close with the teacher who led the program.
“Jessica volunteered every day,” said Kay Curl, director of the Corona High School program. “This became her way of recharging her batteries, by connecting with other people.”
Curl added she didn’t initially know Franey was homeless, but knew she was having a hard time. She and her daughter did their best to help, and encouraged Franey to apply to college.
“She interacted with girls who were homeless, hungry, abused and disenfranchised, Curl said. “That was the beginning of her interest in this area, because she could relate to these young people.”
Curl’s daughter Kelly said Franey quickly became a member of their family.
“We couldn’t be more proud of her given her life circumstances,” Kelly Curl said. “I really admire her determination and perseverance, because it would’ve been so easy for her to give up.”
Franey graduated from California State University Fullerton in 2014. When she applied to UCLA’s law school, she knew she wanted to help the homeless the way Kay and Kelly Curl helped her.
Franey’s mother Sue said she thinks her daughter’s ability to overcome her difficult circumstances have set her up for success in the future.
“Jessica is the type of person who wants to help anyone she can – she’s always been compassionate and never judgmental,” Sue Franey said. “When she was 8 years old, she would ask me to give food and money (to the homeless).”
Franey’s mother added her daughter has always had the capability to impact people’s lives.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to be the parent I would’ve liked to be, but Jessica came out amazingly,” Sue Franey said. “She’s comfortable and proud of who she is, and I know she will do great things.”
Franey said she wants to unburden the homeless by offering legal advice about issues like theft, harassment and police tickets.
“I tend not to talk about my situation with the clients, but I hope my presence can show them they are not unworthy of eye contact,” Franey said. “I want to help to restore some of their dignity.”