Living in Shelter 

During the five years that Amya lived in four shelters, she relied on words, both reading and writing them, to soothe her and help her survive the extreme insecurity of homelessness.

by Amya Shaw

Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Before I went into the shelter system, I was confident. I wanted to try new things and I was very loud. No matter what I was saying, I had to be loud about it. “THERE’S THE ICE CREAM TRUCK! CAN WE GET ICE CREAM PLEASE?”

I was 9 years old and in 4th grade when I went into the shelter system after my family was evicted from our apartment where I had lived my whole life.

The night before we moved into the shelter, my mom, dad, and two of my aunts and uncles were packing. I hid under the table and wondered where we were going. I didn’t ask because in my household a child was supposed to be seen but not heard. It wasn’t my business why my mom was packing our things up or where we were going, because I was a child.

My mom eventually brought me upstairs to my friend’s apartment so the packing could continue without me around. My mom had arranged for me to sleep over, but after we showered and ate dinner I wanted to go home. When I came back, she took my overnight bag from me and put it down next to a big, black plastic garbage bag full of my dolls and dollhouses.

The next morning, we didn’t go straight to the shelter. We had to go to Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH), the homeless intake center, for placement.

We weren’t placed by the end of the day, so they put us on a school bus that took us to a motel in Queens where we stayed the night. This back and forth went on for a few days.

My mother said, “It’s only for a little while. We’ll be back home soon.” And that’s what I believed for such a long time: We would be home soon. Little did I know I’d live in and out of shelter for the next five years.

Homelessness Changed Me

After a few months of living in the shelter, I became closed off. I didn’t yell when the ice cream truck came by anymore; I didn’t announce my arrival home from school with loud laughs and giggles. I just came back to the shelter and curled up on the bed.

There was a bedroom my brother and I slept in and my parents slept in beds in the living room. I had my toys, but not as many as before because my parents had put most of our belongings in storage. When we couldn’t afford to rent the storage space anymore, my toys were sold.

I became closed off because in my mind, whether it was true or not, all the other kids at school had a home to go to. And they had things that belonged to them. My bed didn’t belong to me. I didn’t have a room or a bookshelf or a toy chest. I figured other kids didn’t live in one room with their parents and brother. I felt like an outcast.

The only comfort I got was from books. I was in love with <em>Harry Potter</em> and <em>The Hunger Games</em>.

Words Soothed Me

Reading books was like traveling to another world. Reading kept me occupied when my parents argued relentlessly, and helped me block out their loud voices.

I also wrote a lot. Being able to put my emotions into words relaxed me. The feeling of the pen gliding smoothly across the paper calmed me down. I was inspired by the<em> Twilight</em> series to write my first book. I adore all the details author Stephanie Meyer puts into the stories.

I wrote the draft for my first book in a month. It’s a sci-fi story about vampires. I cherish that book. Writing it helped me escape from my real life. Since then, I’ve written 15 books, all fiction and all in black and white composition notebooks. (I plan to publish a few online before I graduate high school.)

More of a Hothead

I had always been a hothead, flying off the handle and having a temper, but this side of me got much worse once we became homeless.

This anger was partly learned. My parents often yelled at each other. We’d move in and out of shelters and into my aunt’s house and during those times, she and my mom were often at it. So that was all I knew about how to express my anger. This life had made all us angry people even angrier.

In 5th grade I started getting into fights and arguments with teachers and girls at school. I would go on rampages—vandalizing bulletin boards, tearing apart displays, and cursing at anyone who crossed my path. I despised my teachers for not questioning my behavior. They never thought: “I don’t think a kid wakes up in the morning intending to ruin everyone’s day and tear everything apart. There must be a valid reason as to why a child is acting out like this.”

I hated to be home and tried to stay out as long as I could. After school I would hang out in the park with my friends or at my friend’s house. Sometimes I would stay out until almost midnight.

I wondered if any of the other kids were having as sh-tty a life as me. I wondered if anyone was as angry as I was.

I am self-aware—I knew what was wrong and why I was acting the way I was acting, but I didn’t know how else to deal with it.

Feeling Understood

Finally, I was assigned to Dr. Morrow, a social worker at my school. Whenever my temper got the best of me, she took me to her office to talk. She let me draw and we ate tea biscuits and delicious muffins while we spoke. Sometimes she would bring me sweaters because she knew how much I loved them.

Dr. Morrow didn’t give me exercises or coping skills to help me control my anger: she just let me talk. She didn’t treat me like a troubled kid with anger problems. She treated me like a regular human being with a lot going on in her life.

Just being able to talk to someone who understood me helped reduce my lashing out.

But she’d also remind me when I got angry, “Just walk away, Mya. It’s not worth it now, and it won’t be worth the consequences in the future.” I still recall those words when I’m faced with an altercation.

Hard to Focus on Myself

I was close with my parents and brother before we went into the shelter system. But, as time went on, I became distant and angry and wanted nothing to do with them. I didn’t want to help my mother clean on Sundays anymore. I didn’t want to take trips to the library with my dad and read books with him until it closed anymore. I didn’t understand why we had to go through this for so long. My parents noticed the change in me and tried to talk to me, but I didn’t want to.

I had no goals and I criticized myself for it. But now I realize that when you are homeless and don’t have a stable living situation, it’s hard to focus on yourself or to do anything well.

My mother kept trying to get a job. My father has been working for the New York City Department of Education since his 20s. He coached girls’ basketball for 13 years at a high school in Manhattan. He still works there as a school aide.

It seems unfair that even with one employed parent and another who did everything that was expected of her to try to gain employment, we were forced to live in shelters and couldn’t get a place of our own.

In my freshman year of high school, I started to change. I was in a new, healthier environment. This school had supportive teachers and I made more friends. We were living with my aunt and it was a calm period at home. I made the honor roll for the first semester.

Chaos, Then Calm

But soon enough, my home life became chaotic again. My parents fought, my mom and my aunt fought; there was a lot of drinking and yelling. That’s when I started smoking. One morning my mom found weed in my bag, and during a big argument she threw a frying pan and a pot at me. They didn’t hit me, but I was highly upset with her.

I went to school for maybe an hour that day and then left to get high with a friend. After this, I started to skip school a lot to go smoke. When I did go to school, it was only for one or two classes.

But that summer, I began to realize that I had great qualities like my brains, my writing talent, and my self-awareness. I recognized that my anger over being homeless for so long and the constant exposure to my family’s violence was legitimate, but I was letting it get in the way of my ability to reach my full potential.

I started to write more because I knew it would help me get my anger down on paper rather than out in the world. I felt proud that I had the ability to realize this. Although I couldn’t change my parents’ and aunt’s way of dealing with their negative emotions, I could try to change my own.

By the end of my sophomore year I had done a whole 180. I started doing things that make me happy. Now I write and read again, I listen to music more often, take walks, and color. I am also bold and loud again, but instead of screaming for the ice cream truck, every once in a while I scream for sushi.

Stability for Now

Over the last five years, I have lived in four shelters.

Two years ago, after my aunt asked us to leave for the third time, my mom finally got a job working at a hotel, and we moved in with my dad’s aunt, my great-aunt. I share a room with my parents and my brother. We all have many clothes and sneakers, and the room is always a mess no matter how many times we clean it.

I prefer it to the shelter though. I feel at home there sometimes, but I constantly worry that we will be asked to leave. Still, life is better because now my parents don’t argue as much. My mom and her sister also rarely argue anymore. Although I still don’t have my own place to live, I am happy, which is something I wished for all those depressing nights in the shelter.

I know this is temporary. When I was younger I thought my homelessness would be permanent.

I have often thought about Dr. Morrow over the last two years, but I did not feel comfortable reaching out to her. As I was finishing this article I decided to do so. I emailed her and got a response back a few days later. I was ecstatic to hear from her again. We both agreed that we would meet soon, and I can’t wait. It will feel good to see the one person I felt was always there for me during those difficult years. I can’t control my homelessness, but I can try to take care of myself.

Listen to Amya Reading Her Story

Amya Shaw shared her story on the Miseducation Podcast, which features teen voices focused on shedding light on inequality and racial segregation in NYC public schools.

Amya gives a beautiful and moving reading of her story, which you can listen to here: One Homeless Student’s Journey

Having a Job But Not a Home

New York City has experienced record levels of homelessness in recent years. According to the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, the main reason is a lack of affordable housing. Skyrocketing rents send more and more families into shelters. Like Amya’s father, having a job doesn’t mean you can escape homelessness.

By the end of 2016, there were about 60,000 men, women, and children in New York City shelters at any one time. One third of families with children in shelters have a working family member, but they remain unable to find an affordable apartment in the city.

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