February 1, 2016 by poverty2professional
I was born on a Wednesday in early February. The day I turned seventeen coincided with the original weekday. And it was on that Wednesday that I got the weirdest birthday gift of my life: my father and I were admitted to a family shelter. At the time, I wondered if maybe this is what it felt like to get admitted to college. I was excited, relieved – at least to be out of the emergency winter shelter – and I had no clue what was next.
It wasn’t like college at all.
Well, except for the crappy ID photo. When our file was sent over to the family shelter, my dad and I had to take a photo for confirmation. It had been our last night at the cold winter shelter and we looked like hell. We swore we would burn the picture once we didn’t need it anymore.
As we drove up, we nearly missed the whole structure. For all its size, the family shelter was fairly innocuous building. A family shelter, sometimes called a family center, is a type of homeless shelter that specifically takes in family groups, usually comprised of one legal adult guardian (typically a parent) and a child or multiple children under eighteen. If I had to estimate, I believe our shelter held about twenty-five family units.
My dad and I were lucky to be admitted. Most family shelters are for women and children only. It’s surprisingly, and tragically, uncommon to find a shelter that admits families with mothers and fathers or single fathers with kids. Usually, this is because single mothers who wind up homeless are often fleeing abusive partners. It’s also because of this principle that shelters operate on a level of high confidentiality. No names, no numbers, no disclosure for the safety of the residents.
Shortly after arriving, my dad and I met with the shelter’s director. She gave us a tour of the space. It was the middle of the day and I noticed it was fairly desolate. The shelter where we stayed was an old building that had been retrofitted to its current function. Miniature reproductions of the building plans were framed on the hallway. After studying them later that day, my dad concluded that the shelter had, at one point in its history, been a mortuary.
“Downstairs is blocked off because that used to be the incinerator for cremations. Upstairs used to be the embalming room. That’s where we sleep now!” He seemed very proud with his deductions. I could have done without the information.
As we followed the director around, we were also informed about the rules. Like the cold winter shelter, there were many. Lights out at nine; be back by five, but know that administrative staff won’t move their cars out of the parking lot until five-thirty; don’t ever miss dinner; don’t miss group check-ins; no access to the dorms during the day. Breaking any of this conduct will get you written up. If your family is written up three times, you will be dismissed from the shelter. But at least this time we didn’t have to wake up until six and we were guaranteed breakfast.
Here’s the deal: family shelters are generally better than the large intake shelters for single adults. Some people in homelessness have spoken up about why they prefer sleeping on the street to ever setting foot in a shelter. In addition to frequently reaching capacity and also being a space for highly communicable diseases, this is usually because – for all their rules – shelters have limited security.
At our family center, everything had a lock.
Upstairs, we toured Dorm A (aka The Embalming Room). The first sight that greeted us was a row of lockers. The director introduced us to our assigned spot. Farther down the locker hall, off to the left, was a tiny room.
“That’s the Parenting Room,” the director explained. “Where parents go to quiet their babies at night.” I noticed there wasn’t a door to the Parenting Room. The acoustics would definitely reach the rest of the roommates. Although the room had a small loveseat couch off to one side, it was mostly extra closet space. I would become very familiar with this spot as my after-hours homework nook.
Around the rest of the dorm, the beds were grouped together for family clusters. Each bed had a small metal drawer attached to the frame for personal belongings underneath. It was highly recommended we get locks if we planned to keep anything there. Little partitions between the family clusters made them look like cubicles. There were two rows of these cubicles. We would most definitely have a lot of new neighbors.
At the end of the tour, my dad asked the director for one very important request. “My daughter takes several AP and Honors classes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her go to bed at nine. Could we arrange for her to stay up a little later to finish her homework?”
The director reminded us that making one exception to the rule would have other residents asking for exceptions. But I got a break. Just because of all my classes, I got to stay up until ten. For a shelter, that’s a big concession.
No, I still never went to bed at ten. But the gesture was nice.
Papers were copied, disclosures were signed. By the time all was settled, it was almost one o’clock. Still early in the day. I did the most natural thing I could think of: I begged my dad to take me to school.
Height of nerd-dom? Fine, hang a sign around my neck. I’ll wear it with pride. But right then, I needed something that made me feel like a normal person. This is a constantly reoccurring paradigm for people experiencing homelessness. The desire to feel 100% normal. And I still had two whole classes I could attend before dismissal. Maybe I would even get to tutor afterward.
It was my birthday, so my pops acquiesced. He piled me and my backpack in Old Betsy and we hauled out back to my high school in the next town over.
On the road, dad reminded me of one thing, “You can’t tell anyone that you’re coming from a shelter in a different city.”
At the time, we had no knowledge of the McKinney-Vento Act, which states that any student who finds themselves homeless in the middle of the school year is permitted to complete their education at the original school they attended before becoming homeless. Few homeless families – and not even some school personnel – are aware of this highly targeted piece of legislation. So, rather than make life difficult with the perceived possibility of breaking the law and incurring an additional expense to taking their child to a school in a different city, families transfer their students. Sometimes, this transfer is delayed as the family resettles, tacking on days or weeks of missed schoolwork. And the more material the student misses, as the days and the weeks and the months start to stack up, the further they fall behind. Between having to play catch up and readjust to the whole new social scene of an entirely different school, is it any wonder that homeless K-12 students are often two grades behind their housed peers? Or even drop out of school entirely?
But I assured my father that he didn’t have anything to worry about. No homeless teenager is going to grab a blow horn and run around announcing to the world that she’s homeless. I just didn’t want to fall behind in AP English or Physiology Honors. This was, after all, the schedule my dad was just advocating for.
When I arrived late to fifth period, no one asked any questions. I took my seat and joined the group work. My classmates wondered why I was late (I was never late!) and I just kept it to the bravado that it was my birthday and I decided to sleep in and take half a day to myself. No further prying. I got to go back to being the old me who had a home.
After my last class of the day, I decided to go help out at the after-school tutoring lab. I didn’t have a cell phone, so I used the school phone to check in with my dad. He agreed to pick me up at four.
Back at the shelter, I nosed around a little more. There was a small book room off the main hallway. Only one resident was hanging out in the sofa chair, so I planted myself at the small round table and started my homework. The table was sticky and when I glanced up from my textbooks, I noticed that space wasn’t terribly well cared for. Empty soda cans and candy wrappers littered the bookshelves.
A little while later, my dad poked his head in. “Oh, good. You found what used to be the doctor’s office.” I gave him a puzzled look and he explained the morbid history of the building to me.
Dinner was served at six sharp. Families clustered at circular tables covered in tarp, seated on fold-out chairs. The building’s history was particularly salient in this space. The kitchen was formerly a chapel. This feature was impossible to ignore with the vaulted ceiling arches, wood flooring, and the whole serving space where the meals were prepared still clearly resembled an altar.
I took the opportunity to pray for a short stay. My father asked for something more practical. He identified a friendly family and we had the chance to eat dinner with them. As fate would have it, they weren’t in our dorm.
After dinner, I returned to the book room. It was quiet and I got to be alone. I didn’t yet know where the other kids did their homework and at dinner I noticed I was only one of four high-school-aged kids. But I got to be alone. I had time to reflect, settle in, and I got to work late.
Until ten o’clock.
“Time to get upstairs,” the night staff person told me. “Good thing the director told me you’re gonna be up late. You’d get a write up for not following curfew.”
The new semester had just started, so I was in good shape to call it an “early” night.
Although I had “roommates” now, this obviously wasn’t college. Granted, even as a junior in high school, I had never actually been to or even seen a college campus beyond the two-dimensional portrayal on a pamphlet. But I’d heard enough to know that it was different than this.
And more than ever I was motivated to apply.