Hidden Homelessness: Youth Voices — The Search for Home and Hope for the Future [Anthony’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 living in cars, temporarily staying with others, and in “substandard housing” — all of which are exemplified in this essay.
Living in “substandard housing” is considered an experience of homelessness by the McKinney-Vento Act if “the setting in which the family, child, or youth is staying living lacks one of the fundamental utilities such as water, electricity, or heat; is infested with vermin or mold; lacks a basic functional part, such as a working kitchen or a working toilet; or may present unreasonable dangers to adults, children, or persons with disabilities” (USED Guidance, March 2017, A-3).
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 Anthony’s story.
As I sit here in my dorm room at UCLA, I think back on the journey I took to get here. Dealing with Child Protective Services, foster care, drug and alcohol addictions in the home, homelessness, learning disabilities, school changes, domestic violence, and more all took a toll on me. I had a tumultuous childhood from the day I was born. Before the age of two, I was removed from my home and placed in foster care. Thankfully, my Great-Grandma got me out of foster care when I was two, but at age five, my parents took me back. From that point, there were monumental changes headed my way.
To escape the realities of the struggles that come with being teenage parents and high school dropouts, my parents turned to drugs, alcohol, partying, and fighting. We lived in a very small, filthy apartment and slept on the floor. My mother finally abandoned my brother and me again, choosing to go off and live a partying life with someone else, never to contact me again. We were left with my father, whose addictions and anger grew stronger, while also bringing a troubling girlfriend and her children into our small apartment. The turmoil continued with the escalated alcohol and drug use, violence, frequent moves, and school changes.
We ultimately ended up losing our apartment, and moving into our van. We had 6 children, two adults, a dog, and hundreds of roaches in one minivan. I was 11 and tried to raise my own money by selling water outside a stadium after football games. I used the money I raised to provide food for my brother and myself. It was such a scary feeling not being certain if my brother and I would have food and I felt like my brother’s parent at that point, needing to make sure he was fed. I had to hide the money I earned so that my Dad and his girlfriend didn’t take it and use it for drugs. I clung to it even as I slept, because I knew if I lost the money, my brother and I would go hungry. I quickly became appreciative of the free lunches at school and eating at the local Rec Center during Summer.
I began to feel a lot of shame about my living environment. I had to seek out a place to take a shower or to clean my clothes, rely on food from the rec center or the money made selling water, and try to sleep crammed in the small van we called home. I hid my situation from my friends, but they saw how disheveled I looked. My goal was to attend college, but it was hard to find light at night to read or do homework. Libraries were a sanctuary to me for this entire year. When I couldn’t get to a library, I couldn’t complete a lot of assignments because the internet was necessary.
During this time, my father became more dependent on drugs and with that came anger, much of which was directed at me. I was the chosen recipient of his physical abuse many nights when he returned home from work. The bruises on my face brought the attention of the authorities and I ended up in foster care again. The miracle was that, eventually, I was placed in the loving home of my Great-Grandmother. She was my saving angel.
By this time, I was thinking about college and applying for scholarships, and one jumped out at me. An organization called Schoolhouse Connection was offering a scholarship for youth that had experienced homelessness. I couldn’t believe that my suffering with homelessness would turn into a bright spot of achieving my dream of college. When they called me and let me know I received their scholarship, I was so excited.
Soon after being awarded the scholarship, sadly, once again my life changed. My Great-Grandmother passed away right before my high school graduation and, while still grieving, I had to face the possibility of homelessness again. Schoolhouse Connection became more than a scholarship. They became family to me. They made sure I had the resources I needed to survive. And many wonderful friends opened their homes to me. They grieved the loss of my Great-Grandma with me, while celebrating my admission to UCLA. I was scared, not knowing what my future held, but I felt more confident because of all the resources available to me.
Since I started attending UCLA, my life has changed. Doors opened for me, and an abundance of opportunities came knocking. Along with my studies, I focused on advocating for homeless youth and foster youth in every way I could so that others like me could attend college. Through my networking and work I have met a Supreme Court Justice, met with Congressional and State Senators, worked as an intern with my favorite NFL team, shared my experiences in keynote speeches, and met a lot of amazing people that will be friends for life. I am so grateful to the people and organizations that helped me to get here.
Now, I am sitting here in my UCLA dorm room. I have a bed, a desk, and three meals a day. Most students don’t understand how much that means to some of us. They haven’t walked in my shoes and could never comprehend that having a room, a bathroom, and three meals each day is a luxury. More than that, I feel secure. Every night when I go to sleep, I know I am safe. I know when I wake up in the morning, I won’t have hunger pains because I will have breakfast available for me. I don’t need to seek out a place to study because my desk in my room works just fine. I now have a home and hope for the future.