I'm One of the 22,000 Homeless Kids Living in New York
I used to dread it when people at school asked me where I live or if we could hang out at my place. I would try to give my schoolmates a general response, maybe the name of a neighborhood, but they always pressed for more. I've been homeless on and off for most of my life. I've lived in New York City shelters twice for extended periods of time. Most of the other times my mother and I bounced from house to house of friends and relatives.
I remember one time we were living in a house with 15 people. It was a nice house, but not for 15 people. It was originally three bedrooms, but after we makeshifted it – changing the closets into rooms and stuff like that – we ended up with about seven "bedrooms". Kids were always running around. Someone would bring in all these animals and then never take care of them. We had two bathrooms but one broke often. One even became a kind of prison for a cat that no one wanted. You would think someone would just take the cat to the ASPCA, but everyone was too lazy. The house fell into disarray. We couldn't even get down the hallway without stumbling over trash.
Perhaps other students in my school lived like I did, but I never knew it. I recently heard about the New York Times profile of Dasani, an 11-year-old homeless girl. In some ways, I know how she feels. I, too, am one of the estimated 22,000 homeless students in the city.
It's impossible to succeed unless you can escape being homeless. My grades went kaputz when my mother and I lived in the shelters. I wasn't at all focused on school during those years. I'm not sure what I was focused on. I was just floating in space. I don't have any inspiring stories. I just got through it. I didn't really have anything to hold onto. I honestly don't even remember much of the 8th grade. If you can get back on your feet, you are back at the starting point that everybody – or at least most people – start at. But getting there is hard.
When people think of the homeless, most can only think of the seeming vagabonds that stink up entire subway cars and beg for change on the street. They don't think about the aunt that lives with them from time to time, or the office worker that somehow gets there first everyday. Being homeless doesn't mean that you live on the streets, but it does mean you're one step closer to doing so.
I was about three when I first lived In the homeless shelter. I had no idea at the time, but my grandfather had just thrown my mother and I out on the streets. At the time, all I cared about was our new apartment. It was nice, and I had my own room. In the common area we had a large couch, where I could be found glued to an equally large TV. There was even another boy about my age just above us. I didn't ask the big questions: Where's my Father? Why don't we see our relatives? My mother purposely kept me unaware of these things.
The last thing my mother wanted was for me to feel poor and underprivileged, even though we were. She spent her time putting me in this little bubble, while she would fight for our happiness everyday. But she was beaten, tired, and everyday, she would come home angry or depressed with the scars of her trials. I was never able to help my mother, because I never knew what she was going through. I honestly don't know what I could have done.
We were always bouncing around a lot. We went back to the New York City shelter system when I was in middle school, in 7th grade. We had a room that was a lot like a studio apartment. It was very pristine and orderly, extremely orderly. There were room checks when you were gone and fire drills. We had very little freedom. You had to sign out to leave and you were limited on how often you could leave.
When I read the New York Times profile of Dasani, I realized how different life can be for homeless students. We were on different planes in the same city. I have three siblings, but they were adopted by the city. I can't see them. I see my father sometimes. There are times I won't see him for years, then I'll see him rapid fire for a bit. I can't remember the last time I saw him. Dasani has her family with her and a lot more freedom in the shelter where she lives in Brooklyn, but she doesn't have a great place to live. I lived in a much nicer shelter in many ways, but it was like an asylum. So there's a really big contrast between our lives: horrible freedom or wonderful oppression. Maybe that's the best way to say it. Neither is ideal.
I don't think my mother and I are totally back on our feet yet. We're still picking up the pieces. We moved out of the city shelter three years ago into transitional housing. My mother managed to get a job despite not graduating from high school. She works in medical billing now, but we live in constant fear of moving. We almost lost our place this month. You always have to be ready. You don't want to set up too much. You are always worried. I don't have anything older than about a year. I try to keep things, but it never works out. It's hard to keep things when you move so much.
Most of the things I've gotten come from Ms Hedaa, founder and director of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children. I'm not quite sure how we met, but Ms Hedaa has been a constant in my life. She's always there. And if she isn't there, she comes back. When we moved into the shelter, she would give us numbers to pantry after pantry so we were never hungry. She was always a call away. Then she helped to get me into a semi-boarding high school where I am now a junior. I live with my mother on the weekends.
I think the number one problem for many people living in homeless shelters is getting started. When you're in the shelter system, it's hard to prepare for a career that will set up a decent paying job. Looking for a place to live is hard. Your job options while you're in the shelter really don't match the apartment options. I doubt you have much chance of working in a hospital while living in the shelter. My mom didn't get her job until we left.
We receive food stamps and other types of aid. I try to hold any job that I can, but it's hard to get jobs in the recession. The last thing anyone wants to do in this recession is give a teenager a job. I have done some work this year as a tutor.
I don't think I was dealt a bad hand in life, but I think I was passed a bad hand from my mother. But it's OK because she also slid an ace down my wrist and told me to save it. She is the ace. As long as she's there, no matter how terrible my hand is, we make it through.