Hidden Homelessness: Youth Voices — “This safe space gave me freedom and it unblocked my brain to dream again.” [Syerra’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 with others and in “substandard housing” — both 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 Syerra’s story.

My first years of life were comprised of violence, gangs, drugs, abandonment, and neglect. I am the product of an incestual relationship between my mother and her stepfather who raised her since she was seven years old. By the time my mother was 22, she’d had three daughters fathered by him. When I was five, my mom grew the courage she needed to leave my father in order to start a new life for us. I thought that life was going to be better, but it wasn’t long before she had a new man. We moved in with him, but it was a very dangerous environment. Naked pictures of women hung on our walls and drugs were used freely. Physical abuse was an everyday occurrence, and this circus that was now my life was filled with broken promises and no one to care for us or protect us.

When I was 10 years old, my Nana came to San Diego with my step-grandfather and Granny Faye, to hold an intervention with my mom in hopes of helping her get out of the life she had fallen into, but it was no use. My Nana packed up my sisters and me and took us to live with Granny Faye and our father at her house. This environment wasn’t much better. My father and his friends were addicted to crystal meth, and lived in a trailer and in tents in my Granny’s backyard. Life indoors wasn’t much better with a roof that leaked and roaches and mice. The plumbing only worked in the kitchen, and my Granny didn’t have a lot of money to pay utility bills, so we were only allowed to bathe once a week. My sisters and I filled a bucket with water from the kitchen sink to pour into the bathtub. After our bath, we had to take the bucket to get the dirty bath water out of the tub to throw outside. Going to school when you only bathed once a week, we learned that children could sometimes be even more cruel than adults when you smell, have matted hair, and dirty clothes.

When I was 13 years old, I began to realize that I had to leave my Grandparents home, but I had nowhere to go. I found a family that let me stay with them occasionally and I would spend a few days a week with them and the rest of the time at my Grandparents’ home. This was hard, because it was unstable and a lot to handle, but I didn’t have a choice. Eventually I had to fully leave my Grandparents home and I moved in full time with this family. It seemed like this was what I had always wanted. The house was clean, I had food and clothing, and I was finally taken care of. In exchange for staying with the family, I originally was just asked to babysit their three kids. Eventually though, I was also asked to clean the house and over time I felt as though their attitudes towards me began to change no matter how much I did. They would make comments about me living there being a pain, and started telling me that I was going to end up just like my mother. By my senior year, they decided I was too much of a burden and asked me to leave. I thought I finally had a family, but all I found was more hurt and pain.

I packed my belongings yet again and I was dropped off at my God Mother’s house, but I was only able to stay there for three weeks. My mother got in contact with me and tried to find me somewhere to live, but I couldn’t live with her because she was still homeless. During this time, I felt like I was back at square one and like I was begging for someone to want me. Thankfully, my Mother got in touch with my other Grandparent, my Nana, who agreed for me to stay with her. My mother agreed to pay $100 a month to my Nana to take care of me, which she did not end up sending after the first month, but ultimately my Nana still took me in and let me stay until I graduated from high school. Without my Nana, I would have likely ended up in the shelter system and I don’t know if I would have been able to graduate. My Nana was hard on me when it came to school, but for the first time in my life, I found peace.

I worked hard and graduated from high school with a 3.5GPA. I was accepted to California State University San Bernardino and before I knew it, I was stepping foot on a college campus with a new start in life. It was scary at first, but I have found an exceptional support system here at CSUSB. I am an Educational Opportunity Program and Giveback Scholarship student. These programs have given me hope. They allowed me to speak, to cry, and to let out all of the hurt and pain. This safe space gave me freedom and it unblocked my brain to dream again. They have helped me a lot and are a true example of the type of child advocate educator I want to be.

I will soon graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and I plan to pursue a master’s degree in social work. I hope to one day also pursue a law degree in child advocacy. I want to fight for children like me who have no one to fight for them. I trust that I will be successful and that there is nothing I cannot achieve. I know that I can make it, and I believe in myself. You learn to be either a survivor or a victim. I’ve always chosen to be a survivor.

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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.