Dilan Oezkan is an energetic and charismatic high school senior with a 4.4 GPA who dreams of acting on Broadway or the silver screen one day.
He’s also been homeless for most of his life, moving with his family from motel to motel, and on a couple occasions, having nowhere to sleep but a park bench.
Dilan, a senior at Saddleback High in Santa Ana, has worked to overcome severe poverty and other obstacles most students his age haven’t had to face.
But he’s never let those challenges keep him from achieving his goals. Today, the 18-year-old lives in his own apartment, has a part-time job and has secured scholarships and sponsors to help him pay for college this fall.
“There were points where I was at rock bottom. I slept outside in the dark some nights. My family and I had nothing,” Dilan said. “Then you flash forward to the life I have now. It’s been an incredible journey.”
Those who know Dilan say his positive attitude, work ethic and perseverance should inspire not just other homeless youth, but all other students.
American dream elusive for family
Dilan’s journey began in Germany where, he was born. His single mother emigrated to the United States with Dilan and his two siblings just after he was born to find a better life for the family.
They arrived in Texas with no money and just a few belongings. Almost immediately, they had to move into a shelter. Eventually, they ventured to California in search of better opportunities. The mom went on to get married and had another child.
“Most of my life was spent moving from motel to motel. We would live in one motel for two, three years,” he said. “Then we would stay in others for six months, eight months, or sometimes just couple weeks.”
Dilan said mental illness in his family made it difficult for them find financial security and settle down in one place. His mother and stepfather often had difficulty finding and keeping jobs, Dilan said.
Dilan’s family was featured in the 2010 HBO documentary “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County.” In the documentary, a nine-year-old Dilan and his family show viewers how the six of them shared a single motel room. That’s where they cooked meals, cleaned dishes, watched television and slept. Dilan and his younger brother shared a twin bed.
During the worst times, the family couldn’t afford to stay at motels, so they would look to homeless shelters. But there were some nights that not even shelters had enough room. So they slept inside the family car, or on a handful of occasions, on park benches.
“I remember looking up at the sky at night counting the stars as I tried to get to sleep,” he said.
No refuge at school
The children often had to switch from school to school as the family bounced around. By the sixth grade, Dilan had attended seven different elementary schools.
It was also hard to make or keep friends. Dilan also said that as he grew older, he was more and more afraid that any of his classmates would find out he lived in a motel.
“I was so embarrassed. I could never ask a friend to come over to my place to study. I tried really hard to not let anyone know,” he said.
By the age of 15, Dilan said he could no longer stay in a motel. By then, his siblings were also older, and the constantly cramped environment proved too difficult.
It was then that he began as a freshman at Saddleback High. He asked a friend he met at school if he could stay with him for a few days. His friend agreed. A few days turned into weeks, months, then an entire year.
Dilan said he confided with his friend’s family about growing up in a motel. The sympathetic family took him in. He shared a room with his friend, but for the first time in his life, he had his own bed.
A helping hand towards independence
Prior to Saddleback High, Dilan attended Skyview School in Orange, a campus run by the Orange County Department of Education. The school is designed to help children without permanent homes transition into the mainstream educational system.
It was there that he met Diane Estill, a Skyview teacher who would go on to mentor him.
“Right away I saw something special in Dilan,” Estill said. “I knew that he was the type of student who wasn’t going to let his circumstances stop him.”
Over the years, Estill connected Dilan with other mentors and resources to help him in school and at home.
In high school, Estill nominated him for the Simon Scholarship Foundation, a philanthropic program that provides high-achieving, socioeconomically disadvantaged high school sophomores with scholarships, laptops and other aid to help them on a path to college.
As part of being a Simon Scholar, Dilan has received $16,000 to help offset his educational costs.
Dilan has also remained in contact with the producer of the HBO documentary, Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Alexandra Pelosi has written recommendation letters on his behalf for other scholarship programs and as part of university applications.
But Dilan’s biggest champion is himself, Estill said. He ranks academically near the top of his class. Education has always been a priority for him, even during the most dire times, Estill said.
He’s held a steady job since his freshman year, working at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. He started as an entry-level position and now serves as the restaurant’s marketing director, focusing on the advertising campaigns.
His salary and support from scholarships and sponsors allowed him last year — at the age of 17 — to rent his very own one-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana, near South Coast Plaza.
“It has a living room, a kitchen, my own bedroom,” he said. “I have an indoor closet that somebody else could sleep in if they wanted to. It’s that big.”
Now Dilan said he can put his full focus on preparing for college. He hopes to attend Columbia University in New York to study acting or political science. He said he wants a career where he’s able to show off his vibrant personality.
He’s also applying to several University of California and California State University campuses. Regardless of what school he attends, he expects to have all his expenses covered through scholarships.
Another goal that drives Dilan is sharing his story in hopes of inspiring other homeless youth. He is no longer embarrassed to tell people he grew up in motels. He has spoken at conferences focusing on homeless issues and plans to mentor other homeless youth in the community.
“I definitely want to work with a nonprofit, or even create my own nonprofit to help homeless children,” he said.
“I want to let them know that there is hope and people out there who can help,” he said. “And for those who haven’t experienced homelessness, I want them to know that these children are out there. Anything we can do to help can make a big difference in someone’s life.”