February 29, 2016 by poverty2professional
At the Pound, when I looked around at the other kids I knew I was “old.” The day we arrived, I’d turned seventeen and, by default, became the most senior of the under-18 crowd there. That alone was a blessing that I was seventeen and not eighteen. If the latter were the case, my dad and I would have had to apply at the local adult intake center as opposed to a family center. Legally, we would no longer qualify as a “family.” We would have been two single adults.
I remember asking my dad if it would have been better if I were in middle school or at least early high school. If my age would have bought us more time then.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s good you are the way you are. You’re functionable.”
I think he meant “functional.” He didn’t elaborate much beyond that – mostly because I corrected his grammar and he got annoyed and changed the subject. In any case, what my father said encouraged me to make more observations of other families. And he was right. As homeless families go, it was lucky for us that I was a teenager. I was bigger, more autonomous, and just a little less helpless than kids who were thirteen or younger.
“You’re also not travel-sized,” Dad later added.
I never really considered any danger of being kidnapped or harassed while we were at the Pound since it was – in the name of its mission and intents – a safe place. Other spaces of homelessness, however, weren’t necessarily as secure. When we had to make an emergency withdrawal from our account, the only available office was at the single adult intake center. My dad growled for me to stay close. I had the capacity to run or speak up. I could “be a hassle.”
Being a teenager meant I wasn’t beholden to anything a “grown-up” told me. Talking back to our caseworker was off-limits, but I didn’t have to believe what was said to me at face value. If someone told me I wasn’t supposed to be somewhere, I questioned them. Like when I was studying in the bookroom and staff wanted me out because volunteers were going to be walked through. Books, papers, binders, and all my work spread out, I wasn’t exactly in the position to just pick up and move. And it felt like another micromanaging rule to follow. It was generally customary that residents were asked to step out when volunteers or donors were walked through the Pound. I asked why. I was told it was they wanted to exhibit a clean space.
I countered, “Don’t you want them to see how the kids use the library?”
And I got to stay right where I was.
As a teenager, the front part of my brain that controls judgment might still have been developing, but I knew how and when to articulate my situation as I felt best. At school, if I didn’t want my teachers to know I was homeless (which 99% didn’t), I had the discretion to exercise it. Most of the younger kids who wanted to share their situation sometimes were sometimes unsure about how to present it to their teachers. When they did it often raised undue anxiety and stress among parents who were now being called into additional conferences with genuinely concerned, well-meaning teachers. And the kids who chose not to tell their teachers, didn’t always know how to ask for help. So, after switching schools for the fourth or sixth time, they came back to the Pound swamped in catch-up work. One boy had three packets of make-up worksheets that we painstakingly worked through until his curfew one evening.
Another advantage: my family was small. Me and my dad. Two people. The other two-person families were usually women with infants. I think my dad was very relieved I wasn’t at that vulnerable a stage in my development. Infants needed everything. Attention, care, food, sleep, peace, space. Because the bookroom was well-lit and quiet – and because the dorm was closed to us during the day – mothers with infants would breastfeed in the bookroom. It was fairly private; I was usually the only occupant. On the weekends when I would study in there, the mothers never chased me out. Sometimes I think the residents were more considerate of each other than the staff.
This one young mother had six-month-old twins. One night, we starting chatting as she settled down to feed her babies. I haven’t forgotten what she told me. “Whatever you do, don’t be twenty-one and pregnant.”
I remember twenty-one being so far away and old compared to me. It seemed so “adult.” Now being in my mid-twenties, I look back and go, “Whoa.” I can’t fathom the demands of being a single parent going through homelessness with a child that was one-hundred percent dependent on me.
And when you’re a kid in a family, you’re still reliant on the decisions adults make for you or on your behalf. Being a teenager meant understanding this dynamic. I knew why we were homeless. Like a lot of the kids (and just about all the parents), I didn’t know when our circumstances would change for the better or if it ever would. And if we ever had to move on from the Pound, I trusted my dad to explain it to me. It would seem just a little less arbitrary. Not all parents could explain these circumstances to their six- or eight-year-olds.
As difficult as it was to come to grips with the circumstances, I wouldn’t have traded my awareness of them for ignorance. That wasn’t bliss; that was agony. I saw it written on the faces of the little ones who were stuck with the same rules, but didn’t know why Mom or Dad was so frustrated all the time, why they were being pulled out of school again, or why they couldn’t stay at their friend’s house just one more night. I learned to be grateful that I was “good the way I was” at seventeen. I just kept hoping we would get housing before I became a “legal adult.”