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.