When I Lived in a Shelter, I Still Kept My Head Held High

I have since discovered I am far from alone; 1 in 10 children in New York City schools are homeless.

by Sirsy Galarza

Some names have been changed.

In 2016, I felt like my world was collapsing. My two aunts died, and then my grandmother. This made me afraid that I’d lose my mother and twin brother, too, and be put in the foster care system. Then, in the midst of all that death, my mother, twin brother, and I were forced out of our Brooklyn home where I had lived all my life.

My mom received a foreclosure notice in the mail. She knew this was coming because she hadn’t been able to pay her mortgage.

My mom was frightened, and her mind overflowed with thoughts of us being thrown out. At the same time, we were living with my violent father. A never-ending war: constant arguing and fighting and no silence. So when we finally had to move, I was glad to be free of his toxicity and animosity. But it was still hard to say goodbye to the house where I took my first steps.

The Day We Moved

The day we moved, we took a cab to a place in Manhattan, which we thought was the Department of Housing Services’ Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH), the intake facility for homeless families. But it wasn’t, so my mom had to pay for another cab to the Bronx. We each took only three sets of clothes. My mom put the rest of our things in storage near our old house.

Once we arrived at PATH, we spent hours waiting, moving from floor to floor, coming across a plethora of people of different nationalities and ethnicities. I saw children crying from hunger. As I saw them rush to get the paper bags of free food, I wondered about all the horrific circumstances the people I was surrounded by were facing. I felt anxious. Unsituated. Angry. Unfortunate, confused, hopeless, and powerless.

I could tell my mother was terrified that we wouldn’t be given a place to live. She kept saying we were going to be OK, that “God is always with us,” so we shouldn’t worry. Her hands were shaking, though. She said she had a headache. It wasn’t until after midnight that they put us in a car to take us to a shelter in Bushwick.

“You No Longer Live Here.”

The room was small and dirty, with two bunk beds and a small bathroom with a shower, toilet, and sink. The water in the bathroom was mostly cold. We had no air conditioning or cable. We tried to make the best of these poor conditions.

There was a 9 p.m. curfew. There was no elevator, so we had to take the stairs to the third floor, which was a problem for my mother because she has COPD. My brother and I have asthma, so we all suffer respiratory problems. Consequently, whenever we bought food, we struggled to carry the bags up the stairs.

Painting by Sirsy Galarza

Three months later, my brother had an asthma attack and he was admitted to the hospital. My mom spent two days with him while I stayed with an aunt. When we returned to the shelter, the guy at the front desk said, “You no longer live here.”

“What do you mean?” my mother asked. “Where are my belongings?”

Staying out at night was not allowed and he claimed we did not call to inform them that my brother was in the hospital, although my mother did. She found the supervisor.

“I called the front desk as soon as he was admitted and they said it was fine. I have papers proving my son was admitted in the hospital. How could you just throw us out? My son just got out of the hospital,” she said.

“Being that you did not call and we were not informed, we assigned your room to another family,” the supervisor said. It seemed obvious this had happened to other families before and he didn’t care; this was just another day at work for him.

And that was that. We were kicked out. We found all of our things in garbage bags in a storage room. They even threw out all of our food; not knowing whether or not my mom had enough money to replace it. Obviously, since we were living in those conditions, we did not have money to waste.

That night, we had to go back to the PATH location in the Bronx. Because we got there late, after a couple of hours we were put in a van and sent to a hotel to spend the night, while they prepared a shelter room for us. In the morning, they took us to a different shelter in Brooklyn, about 20 minutes from the first one we stayed at.

The second shelter, near Marcy houses, was a nicer two-bedroom apartment that had a bath, although the water there was almost always cold. The curfew was 10 pm; however, unlike in the other shelter, this one had weekend passes where we could spend the weekend outside of the shelter in a family member’s home or wherever we pleased.

I Kept My Head Held High

Still, I went to school every day with a smile on my face and tried to keep my head held high. Through it all, I still managed to pass all my classes with high grades. I studied at the library most days after school, using the free Wi-Fi and computers.

None of my teachers knew I was homeless. I was terrified someone would find out. It was a secret I kept from everyone, because I feared getting bullied or even worse, pitied. I didn’t want to be seen as the “poor” or “unfortunate” girl. I didn’t want to be treated differently, or become a laughing stock.

Sometimes, my friends wanted to walk me home, and I had to make up an excuse for them not to. Or, when I was walking back to the shelter and I saw kids from my school, I would wait till they left to go inside. I didn’t even tell my two best friends. My mom didn’t even tell our family. We all kept it a secret, suffering in the shadows.

Not the Only One Who Is Poor

At school, Jacob was one of the popular boys. He showed up in nice sneakers and cologne. He lived in the first shelter I was in. I saw him and his mother inside, two floors down from me. One day I said hi and we started talking. He messaged me on social media and we became friends after that. It was shocking to me how someone’s life may appear so much better than yours, but you never really know what challenges they may be facing. This made me feel less alone.

We spent about one year in the shelter system. I don’t know how my mom got our house back, but she did. And now, five years later, the system has only gotten worse. According to the latest figures from the Coalition for the Homeless, in January, there were 12,006 families living in New York City homeless shelters and 17,645 children. The New York State Education Department published data “showing that more than 111,000 New York City students…were identified as homeless during the 2019-20 school year.” That’s about 1 in 10 children enrolled in district or charter schools.

I know what it feels like to wake up one day and all that you have is taken from you, you’re in a new environment that you have no control over, you want to help but you feel powerless. These statistics show how many other people are struggling through these same horrific experiences.

When I’m older, I want to help those suffering from homelessness and hunger. I want to be wealthy one day and give back to my Brooklyn community. Until then, I hope this story gets others like me to talk about this issue and not be ashamed and hide it. So many people are going through this and it’s not our fault.

Discussion Questions

  1. Sirsy experiences some extremely stressful and traumatic events related to housing. How do you think this affects her? In what ways are these events traumatic for a person?
  2. Sirsy writes that she made the decision not tell any of her teachers what was going on. Do you think this was a good decision? Why or why not? How might telling someone have helped?
  3. Sirsy finds some comfort in realizing she’s not alone. When is a time you felt supported in knowing you weren’t alone?

None of my teachers knew I was homeless. I didn't even tell my two best friends. My mom didn't even tell our family. We all kept it a secret, suffering in the shadows.
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