Hidden Homelessness: Youth Voices — “If I could characterize my experiences with homelessness in one word, it would be ‘unstable.’” [Brandon’s Story]

Hidden Homelessness: Youth Voices is a youth storytelling series developed by SchoolHouse Connection that highlights the often overlooked and unseen experiences that define child and youth homelessness. Under the education subtitle of federal law (the McKinney-Vento Act), the definition of homelessness includes common situations for families and youth experiencing homelessness, including staying temporarily in hotels or motels and living temporarily with others — both of which are exemplified in this essay.

Youth experiencing homelessness in these conditions face comparable trauma and challenges as those who live unsheltered, but are often harder to identify and are either not considered to be homeless or not prioritized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), thus making them unable to obtain homelessness assistance through HUD.

Hidden Homelessness: Youth Voices seeks to raise awareness of these realities of homelessness experienced by youth across the nation.

This is Brandon’s story.

My name is Brandon, and I am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Funeral Service. I currently live on my own in a one-bedroom apartment in Oklahoma, and the safe and sustainable environment that I currently call home is largely a result of the resources and tools provided by SchoolHouse Connection, after I was selected for their scholarship program.

In early 2017, I lived with my father and younger sister in a small town in Northern California of about 250 people. When I lived with my father I experienced frequent verbal abuse, including threats of physical violence, that became worse after I came out to him as gay. In February of 2017, I asked my mother, who was in recovery for her addiction to meth, to help me and my sister leave this abusive situation by filing for emergency custody of both of us. Although she didn’t have a place to live at the time, she was able to find a long-time family friend who was willing to let us stay with them until we were able to find housing. This lasted for about a month, until one morning when I woke up I was told that we were being kicked out and had to find a place to stay immediately. This was the first time I realized that I was homeless, and it was terrifying. Even if my living situation wasn’t ideal before, I had never not had a place to go home to, and the thought that that was about to happen changed my perspective of life in an instant. I was freshly 16 thinking of where I could apply for jobs to help my mom pay rent, while she drilled into me that the only thing I was allowed to worry about was school, and we were going to be fine. But my mom was known to make empty promises, so I just had to hold onto hope that she had a plan.

I was told different versions of what had happened. According to my mom, the person who was letting us stay with them had made unwanted sexual advances towards her, and when she denied him, we were forced to leave. I had heard afterwards from one of his children that my mom had stolen multiple credit cards from the man, and used them to purchase expensive items from Amazon. Regardless, while my sister was at school, I stayed back to help my mom figure out where we were going to live for the time being. We had spent considerable time in hotels that we couldn’t really afford while my mom was searching for any available resources with the county. A hotel room is fun for a night or two on vacation, but soon the uncomfortable beds, finicky showers, and smell of mildew that was characteristic of shabby motels began to weigh on me, as I’m sure it did my family. The hotel we stayed at most often had wifi that didn’t work, so I had to use my extremely limited phone data to complete assignments that were already shifting to be mostly online. She eventually found a non-profit organization that sponsored us for a transitional housing program.

While this living situation was an improvement over anything we had before, it was far from a healthy environment to live and study in. The house we were assigned had a major spider infestation. I remember for the first few weeks of living there I would kill at least one or two spiders right before bed when they were the most active. We lived about three miles from my high school without a car, so I would walk an hour to and from school every day until my school would let me change bus routes, as they had a strict policy about not riding other bus routes due to seating issues and overcrowding. I later found out that my mom was spending most of the money she made on meth, so we almost exclusively ate pizza that she stole from her job. While the abuse had been significantly less than when I lived with my dad, my mom and her boyfriend at the time would get in near constant fights that made it difficult to focus on schoolwork, and these fights often turned violent.

Back then, I didn’t have nearly enough wisdom to put all these experiences into context. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary for me, so I internalized how I was feeling and didn’t seek help from outside sources. Even though I realized that I was experiencing homelessness it felt like a fluke, like something I could work my way out of, so I doubled down on academics to make sure I could build a future for myself as far from my current reality as possible. Without a healthy outlet to express my frustration, stress, and confusion, I was simultaneously experiencing some of the worst depression I’d ever had in my life, which affected my academic performance and made me feel like I was losing my ticket out of poverty.

We stayed in transitional housing from March to June 2017. In June 2017 my mom went to jail for violating her probation, and my sister and I finally went to live with our grandmother in what was probably the first stable environment of my entire childhood. If I could characterize my experiences with homelessness in one word, it would be “unstable.” It took a rock solid foundation, knowing that my needs are consistently going to be met and my goals are going to be supported, before I was able to put roots down and grow into the healthiest version of myself I could be. Homelessness is often accompanied by other forms of resource scarcity: lack of food, transportation, and communication to name a few. But even if you consider homelessness in a vacuum, by its very nature it has to become your first priority over anything else. Without an address many jobs are inaccessible, it’s much more difficult to get a bank account in order to cash a paycheck, and it can be significantly more complicated to get approved for government financial aid programs.

Having my own place is more than just having a safe environment and a bed in which to sleep. It’s also about having the agency to make decisions about how I want to experience my life instead of having to make certain decisions and compromises just to keep my head above water. When I received the SchoolHouse Connection scholarship, I quickly realized that it was more than just financial aid for attending school. The support they give extends far beyond the financial impact of what they do, and the resources and knowledge I’ve received from being a member of the SHC community has made it possible for me to maintain agency and stability even in the most turbulent and uncertain moments of my life, and it’s because of them that it’s possible for me to pursue my education and a career in the funeral industry.

SHC, however, can’t handle the caseload of every student in America, and there is only so much that a homeless liaison can do with the limited resources in their area. After all, the McKinney-Vento Act can’t guarantee access to a transitional housing program like I had which was a key aspect in maintaining hope in a hopeless situation. If you or someone you know is a student struggling with homelessness, it’s important to reach out to your school to see what resources and support are available to you in your area. There are often people whose entire job is to find a way to help you get safe and stable housing. You don’t have to struggle with this alone.

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SchoolHouse in Session

SchoolHouse in Session

This is hub of expertise and stories to drive solutions around children, youth, and family homelessness. It is a project of SchoolHouse Connection.