Growing Up Homeless

What shelter life is really like

by Daren Braithwaite

Joel Muniz, Unsplashed

When I was 11 years old, my mother lost her job as a receptionist for a small carpentry company. After a few months of not being able to pay the rent, my mom, my younger sister, and I moved into a smaller apartment. Then we stayed with family and friends, then motels, until there was no money left. 

We took a train from Miami to New York after my mom learned that New York offered greater aid to homeless families. To pay for our train tickets and have a little extra cash, she sold our blender and toaster, our furniture, and her clothes and accessories. 

I refused to part with my DVD of High School Musical. It was my favorite childhood movie. 

We got off of the Amtrak and took the subway to Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH), the homeless intake center, for placement. The building was made up of multiple trailers, each dedicated to a particular stage in the homeless-to-independent process. The nicest trailer was provided to parents who had been approved for public housing—those in the end stages of the process. 

The least-nice trailer, designated for incoming families like mine, was referred to as the “Hell House.” We passed through the metal detectors of the PATH compound and approached a security guard for directions to the waiting room. He pointed in the direction we were supposed to walk and started laughing. 

I heard that families had nicknamed the building because although many of them entered it, few emerged with placement in a long-term shelter. Instead, they were assigned temporary placement in shelters throughout the city. Temporary meant for only 14 days. Then, the process started again from scratch. 

The environment in the building cemented the nickname. You could hear the roar of the noise within as you advanced. There was a large family approaching the doors at the same time as mine. They looked at us like we were all jumping off a bridge together. 

The main room was not designed for comfort, but to pack in as many people as possible. It expanded many yards in each direction with hospital white and yellowish-green lights installed at equidistant intervals on the ceiling. Drawings of Mickey Mouse and the Backyardigans nearly covered one of the four walls, but their vibrant colors were distorted under the lights. 

The better seats were the ones bordering the walls because they offered greater privacy than the middle of the room. But dozens of families had already piled into those few prized seats, so we were in the middle. I ferociously colored in my coloring books to combat my mounting anxiety. 

There were children of all ages crawling under seats, pulling on my clothes when they lost balance, chasing each other up and down the room, and screaming. It felt overwhelming. I was tired but refused to sleep because I did not want to wake up there. 

I had so many questions, but my mom just stared off in a corner looking distraught, so I left her alone. 

I thought about how if I’d still been in Florida, I’d have woken up and gone to school like it was any other day. I thought about my friends who were halfway through their recess. 

Televisions attached to a speaker system announced numbers over the noise of the room. My family, like many others, sat for hours before our number was announced. Each time a number was called, a family was sent around the PATH complex to different offices, caseworkers, and trailers. Each step of the way, there was a new round of caseworkers telling my mom to go back to Miami—that there was nothing they could do to help. I kept hearing the same word over and over again: “Ineligible.” 

I later learned later that my mom’s insufficient proof of her homelessness was the reason for our ineligibility. After she had argued with what seemed like every caseworker on the premises and pled her case to every supervisor, we were transported to a family shelter for two weeks. 

No Stability 

The 14 days passed blindingly fast. Then my mother got a notice that we had to vacate within eight hours. 

“Are you insane?” my mother screamed at her caseworker. She slammed the paper notice against the glass wall of the caseworker’s office. “What do you mean? How?” she continued. 

My mom was talking in fragments. “Why?” and “How?” just kept falling out of her mouth. Our caseworker acted as if she was close to her retirement and out of energy for cases like my mom’s. 

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you. Read the paper. Go back to Miami, come back with the right papers, and then we’ll see what we can do, if anything.” 

And with that, we went back to Miami. We entered another round of bouncing between motels and couch-surfing until she gathered the right proof. I was 12 by then. 

A few months later, we returned with those documents. I thought this meant we’d be placed in a different shelter, but we were sent right back to the same one. This time however, we would be allowed to stay long-term. My mom beamed at the news. 

My school attendance bordered on truancy due to the constant moving. Despite my string of C’s and D’s, I reassured myself that I would be able to attain the straight A’s I’d had before homelessness. 

Our room in the shelter was a small square box with baby-blue walls and a tile floor. One blinding, rectangular ceiling light illuminated the space. 

I was convinced that everyone at school knew I was homeless. I could not walk “home” from school without seeing kids from my class. I’d cross the street, or even walk a different route when I saw them. 

During my first year of living in that shelter, I did not invite conversation with anyone at school. I thought that friends were a hazard. If I did not speak to anyone, then I would not have to worry as much about being seen walking “home.” 

But after two years of living there, I entered 7th grade, and inadvertently made friends. They often asked why I never invited them to my house and why I was always at theirs. Dodging their inquisitions was stressful. When I complained to my mom, she’d say, “You have nothing to worry about. None of those kids’ opinions will matter in a few years.” She didn’t understand. 

New Shelter, New School…Again 

By our third year living in shelter, I was 14 and starting 8th grade. The year before I had made lots of friends and was popular, mostly because I was friendly. I looked forward to making lasting friendships and going back to school. 

But that didn’t happen. My family was moved to a new shelter in a different borough and I had to change schools. The new school was leagues above my old school and the classes were harder. Under normal circumstances, I would have welcomed this upgrade, but living in shelter made it hard for me to keep up. 

At the shelter, children weren’t allowed to go to their rooms without a parent. So I would have to do my homework in the lobby or the overcrowded “Study Room.” Often I was there for hours, waiting for my mom to get back from appointments and job interviews. It was hard to focus. 

Noise was the biggest distraction for me. Parents fought with each other in the hallways. There were unannounced room inspections and fire drills. My English work was almost always late because unlike most of the other students, I didn’t have a computer. I would type up rushed first drafts at school and then rewrite them in longhand at home. To get the final version done, I had to type it up at school the next morning during breakfast—and that meant not getting anything to eat until lunch. 

But I still couldn’t maintain high grades. I knew I’d eventually flunk if I didn’t get out of the shelter soon. I failed gym, my easiest class, because I could not afford the uniform. Teachers, counselors, and my principal knew I was smart and capable but could only offer me morning tutoring sessions in math. That helped but what I really needed was a quiet space to do my work. However, I knew that the majority of students at my school were also below the poverty line so maybe they couldn’t accommodate all of us. 

I wanted to go to college someday, but my life was too overwhelming and I could not imagine myself there. Besides the lack of a quiet place to work, I was focused on helping my mom find a job. So rather than studying, for example, I’d scour craigslist for babysitting, receptionist, cleaning, and bartending jobs. 

I knew that talking to someone, such as a counselor, helped some kids face challenges like mine. But I didn’t reach out to anyone because I felt like there was nothing anyone could say to make me feel better or change my situation. 

Over the years I was glad I still had my copy of <em>High School Musical</em>. It was my one possession and it cheered me up when I watched it. I’d think, “Even though I’m displaced, I have my movie.” I still have it. It’s all scratched up but I don’t care. 

Leave or Be Kicked Out 

At the facility I lived in, families who had been in shelter for over three consecutive years were frequently kicked out. One day we were informed we had to vacate within 24 hours. My mom and I panicked. 

I was just days from my 15th birthday and old enough to understand the situation but unable to change it. We had the same uncaring caseworker who had sent us back to Miami. “This is a shelter—not your house. I don’t know what you want me to tell you,” she said. 

This led my mom to hastily accept her first opportunity to leave shelter. Her friend in Louisiana had offered to put us up. 

Overstaying our welcome with family and friends had pushed us into shelter the first time. How could we revert to relying on friends again? But my mom ignored me when I resisted. She said, “This time is going to be different.” 

Moving around and seeing the adult world had shaped me into a mature 14-year-old, and I felt like my mom should have had more respect for my opinion. Although she would often ask for my input, she rarely listened to it. 

I felt like she was not thinking. Once we left the shelter, we would lose any financial and social support if things went wrong. The thought of us being completely on our own terrified me. We had left the system before and ended up scrambling back. 

My fear transformed into resentment and anger toward my mom because of her stubbornness. I grew angrier the more she tried to brush off the topic when I questioned her about it. From my mom’s perspective, she was the parent, not me, and thus she had the exclusive authority to make decisions for us. I was “too young” to calculate the outcomes of the grown-up decisions she was making. 

Back Down South 

On a freezing December morning we boarded a train to New Orleans. 

I was missing another chunk of school, but I didn’t care. Although I doubted my mom’s judgment, I was excited to get out of the shelter. 

My mom’s friend lives in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. I imagined that I was moving to a dilapidated quasi-cornfield with tumbleweeds and infested with crocodiles. 

Of course, it was nothing like that. It was suburban, although not manicured. The house was an old, creaky thing, but a house nonetheless. My mom’s friend was nice to us, but I knew her generosity wouldn’t last. 

I wasn’t ready for a culture shock as steep as the one I got when we moved from New York City to the South. Even though we were only 8th graders, many kids liked to go hunting. I was used to riding the subway, but they already knew how to drive. Everything I knew about Mardi Gras came from the Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog.” I learned it’s like a state of mind, not just an event. I didn’t know that there was so much cultural history attached to it. 

On my first day, a boy with beignet dust around his mouth punched me on the shoulder and said, “You new, guh?” I didn’t understand that he was asking me if I was the new girl at school. I just looked back at him with a blank expression that must have come across as mean. “Fine then, nobody cares who you is anyways,” he said, and stormed off. 

Still, I adapted and made friends fast—a whole group of them. I also had an easier time catching up now that we were out of the hectic shelter environment. The small house seemed huge to me because I was used to the kitchen and bathroom being attached to the bedroom. 

We did not have to sign an attendance roster and hand in our room key every time we left the house like we used to at the shelters. My grades were on the rise and I was enjoying living “normally” for once. At night you heard crickets instead of the voices of a hundred families ricocheting off the hallway walls. 

I still didn’t invite friends over, though. I didn’t feel comfortable because it wasn’t my house. Still, the environment was so much better and less stressful than shelters. 

Two years passed, and my mom was still on the hunt for a permanent job. One month, she would be babysitting. The next month, she would have no job, which meant no income. Not surprisingly, my mom and her friend started arguing about money. Seeing the same pattern unfolding again was disappointing. 

We stayed in Louisiana until I was 17 and a junior in high school. My mom’s friend could no longer afford the living expenses of three extra people in her house. With my 18th birthday approaching, I knew that I would no longer be eligible to live with my mom in many of the city’s shelters. 

But returning to PATH was the only option because our predicament was no better than it was six years earlier. Homelessness was supposed to be short term but it seemed permanent. 

We returned to New York a month before my 18th birthday. My mom went into shelter with my younger sister, and I moved in with my 28-year-old half-sister. Life with her was quiet and stable. It was the first time in my life I could rely on someone who wasn’t overwhelmed like my mom, or not invested in me like a shelter case worker or my mom’s friends. 

Once I moved in, I had about a year to make up for my disjointed freshman, sophomore, and junior years. I wanted to go to college and knew that it was, as my mom often said, “the key to a better life.” 

My school day was packed with tutoring and makeup labs from 8:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening. It was difficult. I had to take all seven of my Regents in one month! My college counselor also pointed out that I had only participated in two extracurricular activities since freshman year and colleges expected more. But shelter life had prevented me from wanting to join anything. 

Now that I was living in a stable environment, I applied to every program my counselor sent my way. I finished out my junior year with a 97 average. 

That spring, I was surprised to be accepted to the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program, where I learned how to spread the truth as a reporter. It was there that I seriously considered becoming a writer. If four years in and out of shelters and fighting to keep up my grades the entire time has taught me anything, it’s that success is a state of mind. If you’re like me, that means a quiet determination. 

Now that I’m a senior applying to colleges, I think the last seven years put me at an advantage. If I could handle all of that, I can easily navigate the stressful college application process. 

Have You Been Homeless? 

You’re not alone. There were over 111,500 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2016-2017 school year. 

Source: New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students.

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