February 17, 2016 by poverty2professional
It didn’t take long for my dad and me to come up with a euphemism for our new place of residence. We called our shelter the Pound – as in a dog pound. This was a place where there was shelter, but not necessarily warmth. Where you could feel crowded, be in someone else’s way, but still feel alienated and lonely. This was also the place where you waited for the miracle lottery of a home and hoped you could hang on until then.
The Pound was a very appropriate metaphor.
Now, this being a family shelter, everyone was part of a family unit (i.e. there were kids). Having just turned seventeen when we arrived, I was the oldest of the under-18 crowd residing at the shelter. Just as much as any “new kid,” I felt awkward when my family first arrived. What do you do when you get there? How do you meet other kids? Is, “I’ve never had roommates until today!” a bad opening line?
Then I realized that most of the kids in my peer group didn’t really hang out with each other at the Pound. Not at first, anyway. And since my study hours were already limited by the early curfew, I wasted no time the second I walked through the door, making a beeline for the bookroom. That little bookroom soon became my bookroom. Everyone knew where to find me, but no one really came in. Although I frequently found residue of use (old candy wrappers, leftover coffee cups, etc.) in it.
I probably would have been a hermit for the whole of our stay, if it weren’t for someone to reach out to me first. And, trust me, I never thought that person was going to be under four-feet with a fixation for Power Rangers.
Edited Journal Notes, February 2008
Brendan** was just six years old. He read like a fourth grader and polished off his math worksheets in matter of minutes. He spoke fluidly and had an imagination that craved a catalyst. This kid’s brain had roller-skates. Maybe that’s what made him so endearing, like a daisy in the cement cracks. Brendan was the only one who could make me sit in that filthy chair in the corner of the library to read him a couple of bedtime stories. If he’d been a puppy I would have begged my father to keep him.
Whenever I walked back on Pound premises I had a new, bright, little shadow to trail after me. Brendan proved that you could be homeless and still feel like royalty. Sitting there at the table with textbooks and rule lined paper strewn everywhere, I knew I could not have possibly been the most interesting subject at the shelter, but Brendan kept me company. A stack of Disney books or something on dinosaurs and he was set.
It was on such a typical evening that I was reaching into the shelves for some new Brendan reading material when my fingers dipped into something wet and mushy. Last I checked, the spines of books felt nothing like stewed monkey brains.
“Ew, gross!” I pulled out the empty ice cream container from behind the books. “What kind of person does this to a library?”
“Wasn’t me.” Brendan batted his big Bambi eyes upward.
“All right, fine.” I carried the trash and conversation outside. “But you’re going to help me clean it up, ’kay?”
Surprisingly, the little boy didn’t argue. He took pride in shelving and organizing – that, and he probably just liked scaling the bookcases for fun. Either way, Dad was impressed when he walked into the library an hour later and marveled at our work.
“You guys did this whole side?” He slurped his coffee approvingly.
“Yes, we did!” Brendan proudly bobbed his head, arms akimbo.
My dad chuckled. “Hey, take a break, then. Come and get dinner.”
End Journal Notes
Shortly after Brendan and his mom left (to the good news of housing!), I got a new bright shadow. Marco** was about nine and curious about everything. Like Brendan, he was remarkably polite and helpful. If I happened to be passing by with a loaded laundry basket, Marco was the one to hold the door open. Later in the year, we met a mother and her two daughters who were also just as sweet as could be. By and large, the younger kids were pretty cool.
Their parents didn’t seem to mind them hanging around me too much because I also wound up holding individual tutoring sessions. The kids always saw me doing homework in the bookroom, so I guess they figured they may as well ask me for help. Some kids would drop in for the odd worksheet, others for project advice. I became an in-Pound source of academic support. About a month or so later, I started to notice that several of the kids had tutors from a local non-profit, School on Wheels, Inc. I’ll circle back on this uniquely wonderful organization in a couple entries down the road. For now, you can find P2P’s reference for them under Resources for Homeless Students.
Teenagers were a little harder for me to connect to just because we were pretty much each doing our own thing. For all I knew, maybe they were like me – just didn’t know where to start. Although we were all generally familiar with each other – primarily owed to Jim’s group counseling sessions – there wasn’t necessarily a sense of cohort among us. Mostly because we couldn’t ever form long-term friendships. Someone might be there for a week, some for months, but at the end of the day there was no guarantee. Sometimes families were just passing through. Keeping in touch wasn’t necessarily condoned by our parents either. Just because we got along didn’t mean they always did. If anyone was more aware of the transitional nature of contact, they were.
So, while we could play together and sometimes hang out a bit, it wasn’t anything that made us feel a stronger sense of comradery. I think that’s also what made the group counseling sessions I wrote about last week so difficult for us. No one really wanted to disclose anything because why should we? Vulnerability was not something that came easily in these situations. And maybe that’s why I got along better with some of the kids who were either courageous or flat-out nice enough to share some of their vulnerable sides. Made me feel a little less like a clam.
One of my friends learned to be especially brave. She identified as transgender. Being a person of color on top of a gender identity that is still sometimes met with prejudice from even the LGBT community, she was gutsy. And she dreamed big about going to college as much as I did. When she came along, I wasn’t alone in the bookroom anymore. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t go into too much detail about the difficulties and obstacles she faced in her own family unit. That story is separate and is not fully mine to share. However, I will say that her path was that much more difficult than mine, which included her living as an unaccompanied minor after we parted ways at the shelter. Almost miraculously, we eventually reconnected at UCLA as fellow students.
Sometimes, I do wonder where the other kids went. How they’re doing now. I know the fate of one teenage girl who used to get into epic yelling matches with her mother (and sometimes other residents); she was killed by a driver who was texting behind the wheel just a few months after her family had secured stable housing. She had called me “her big sister” and I wish I had kept in better touch after my family moved on.
It’s hard to forget (and not wonder about) the kids I didn’t know quite as well. Sometimes, in the shared space of our dormitory, this boy from one family would wake up screaming or crying from his night terrors. His mother’s solution was to hit him harder. Ultimately, they were asked to leave the shelter or child services would be involved. Another brother and sister lost their mother to drug abuse during their stay, leaving their father a sudden single parent. And, like I said about my transgender friend, she eventually ran away from her physically abusive mother and lived at another shelter on her own.
It’s never just homelessness we’re facing. It’s the million other hurdles in this world we have to navigate. And none of us were even old enough to vote on it. Instead, we’re at the mercy of the adults in our lives – our parents, our case managers, taxpayers, policymakers, and thoughtful volunteers. Being homeless shouldn’t make kids any less entitled to getting an education, to being protected, and to feeling safe.
I wonder how many grown-ups can try to remember that.
**Please note: Names and places are intentionally changed or kept vague to protect individual privacy.