At his job at the Student Life office, Enrique Sepulveda, 22, vice president of the Student Government Association at Wolfson Campus, wears a neat button down shirt and politely answers the phone. He takes helping students become involved and connecting them to information seriously.
“I am learning what it takes to inspire others, so they can become leaders themselves,” Sepulveda said.
He is an ideal picture of an outgoing working student—organized, professional and calm.
But it was not always this way for him. His turbulent childhood included moving nearly half a dozen times around Miami-Dade County, avoiding gangs in high school, getting kicked out of his house at 18, squatting in a foreclosed home and working in construction. Now Sepulveda has found stability allowing him to succeed in his studies by residing in a special program for homeless students at the Camillus House shelter in the city.
“They helped relieve a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Sepulveda said. “I position myself to be on campus 12 hours a day, and Camillus House has provided a safe place for me to avoid all kinds of distractions. It’s a lot better than what I was used to.”
LIFE STARTED UNRAVELING
Sepulveda’s home life has been filled with conflict and strife. He and his sister Destiny Sepulveda, 20, were dismissed from their Palmetto Bay home in the fall of 2013, after their mother and stepfather arrived drunk and a fight between the mother and the sister raged, according to Enrique Sepulveda. With the hope to end it, Sepulveda intervened. But then his stepfather walked into the room.
“He points his finger at me and him and I start fighting right after,” Enrique Sepulveda said. “My mom started screaming and told both of us to get out.”
A friend suggested for the siblings to spend the night in an empty foreclosed house in Coconut Grove. Destiny soon moved in with her boyfriend but Enrique called it home for the next two years.
At the beginning he did odd jobs, like favors for friends who would pay him for cutting the grass in their yards.
However, Sepulveda, had decided to change the direction his life was taking long before.
“I see myself as being a victim of things that I did to maintain because everywhere I looked around me there were negative influences,” Sepulveda said. “It was a bad neighborhood where there was gang violence going on all the time.”
Violence struck him in other ways. As he waited for the bus one night of his junior year of high school, one of his friends was shot in the eye and Sepulveda got a gunshot in his mouth. Since it was a BB gunshot, he made it alive, but afterwards, he found none of his friends cared for him.
The chaos in his life took a toll on his school performance. He went from being a popular all-star football athlete in high school with a 0.8 grade point average and three credits to an invisible repeating senior in 2013.
“He kept engaging in fighting and his attendance was sporadic, but I think overall there was just a maturity that occurred with him.” said Allison Harley, the former principal at Palmetto Senior High School. “His life was very tumultuous.”
After finally graduating high school in 2014, Sepulveda worked full-time as a salesman in a hardware store. Among the frequent customers were a group of general contractors who connected him to his next job. He worked in a landscaping company laboring 12 hours every day until an arm injury, in the spring of 2015, forced him to leave his position, since he could not bear the physical labor it entailed.
“I was working for million-dollar clients and truly that experience was sort of the exposure I needed to decide that I needed a college education because I was exposed to the way that they live,” Sepulveda said.
FOCUSED ON EDUCATION
Sepulveda then decided to enroll in MDC, clueless of the paperwork it required for someone in his situation, he went to Kendall and North Campus to register but had no luck.
He reached out to Wendy Joseph, the program coordinator for Educate Tomorrow, who helped him enroll at Wolfson Campus. The organization helps MDC students and immediate family members connect to public benefits and local resources. She also helped him with financial aid and signed him up for Educate Tomorrow, a nonprofit that serves MDC students under Single Stop, aiming to help them with their educational aspirations regardless of the situation they are in.
“He was there on time, dressed very nicely, the same Enrique that we know now is who I met, very humble and he basically said ‘All I want to do is go to school,’” Joseph said.
Sepulveda began at MDC in the summer of 2015 to study atmospheric science and meteorology and found a job at Target, where he worked the overnight shift restocking shelves. He was worn and exhausted, so his performance in classes was not ideal.
“We can get a student in these doors but if I’m sitting here or a student is sitting in class and they’re worried about ‘Where am I going to go sleep tonight? Am I going to have food to eat today? Are my belongings going to be vandalized? Is my sister going to be okay?’” Joseph said. “You can physically be sitting here, but if in your mind you’re thinking about all these other life challenges, you’re not going to be very productive.”
In a chance encounter during a meeting with Joseph, Sepulveda introduced himself to Jaime Anzalotta, the dean of students at Wolfson Campus.
“I saw a spark of willingness to achieve in Enrique,” Anzalotta said. “[He] was going through some very very tough personal issues.”
Anzalotta helped Sepulveda get a part-time, weekday position in the Student Life Department. He soon became involved with the Student Government Association at Wolfson Campus and was elected in March as the vice president for the 2016-17 year.
But his housing situation was still unstable. The foreclosed house where he had lived in for two years had been repossessed.
“One day the bank came knocking on the door to change the locks and they had the house refinished,” Sepulveda said. When this happened, his ex-girlfriend’s brother offered him a couch to crash but after an argument he found himself homeless again. Sepulveda went to make amends with his mother, but once she took him in, he saw the movie of his childhood playing out again.
“I had started already with the school lifestyle and living with my mother just created a whole other form of negative influences and distractions,” Sepulveda said. “Again, my grades kept declining, I wasn’t getting sleep and I was just really stressed out.”
For a couple of weeks, he parked his car by Margaret Pace Park and slept in it.
“I was embarrassed,” Sepulveda said. “I knew I had to get myself out of the situation.”
A BETTER HOME
That’s when Sepulveda reached out to Anzalotta and was directed to Camillus House, a full service center for low income and homeless people.
Based on the community’s need, last April, Camillus House opened a housing program for young adults who, like Sepulveda, have the desire to succeed but are limited by their homelessness situation. The Catholic Church-based charity offers meals, medical care, showers, shelter and drug treatment to thousands of men, women and children yearly at numerous downtown Miami sites.
The young adults in the Youth Housing Program go home to dorm-like colorful rooms in their building in Overtown. A requirement to reside in the program is to be enrolled in an educational path. Currently, there are five women and 12 men between the ages of 18 and 24. One of the rooms houses LGBTQI+ youth, providing them a safe space to succeed.
“They were house-surfing, they were surfing from house to house in different individuals couches and they really had no stable environment,” said Fred Mims, Director of the Direct Care Ministry at Camillus House, “But they had the desire to go back to school and continue their education as well as work.”
The participants have to be referred by Educate Tomorrow, Project Safe, or any of the partner organization of Camillus House in order to be part of the youth housing initiative.
The program offers three meals per day, psychological assistance, and a case manager that tracks their progress and connects them with resources to get free bus passes and free books, among other necessities.
“We’re also trying to teach independence,” Mims said, “So at one level when they start working and doing things they might move to a higher level of living where they might have to pay a contribution in the near future.”
In early October, the Camillus House facility at Somerville started hosting the second phase of the program for those who have succeeded in Overtown. Sepulveda moved to Somerville.
Sepulveda is not the first homeless student to pursue studies at the College. Up to this past summer, MDC had enrolled 771 students who qualified as homeless during the last five years. By state law, Miami Dade College waives tuition for homeless students.
His life experience has inspired him to change his major to political science.
Sepulveda is expected to graduate from MDC next spring with an associate’s degree. Then he hopes to transfer to Florida State University in Tallahassee to complete a bachelor’s degree in political science and eventually a master’s in public administration.
“Enrique is truly the epitome of success, resilience, dedication, commitment,” Anzalotta said.