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Leaving the Shelter Doubled My GPA
Marlo Scott
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Names have been changed.

The first place I remember living was a three-bedroom apartment in a public housing project in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I was 9 years old. It was my four siblings, my mother, and me. My father lived in a shelter, but he came to visit us every day.

Bushwick is a calm neighborhood, and the people in my community were kind. My mother helped me with my homework and pushed me to focus on learning. She made me feel like one of the smartest kids around, and I knew she had my best interests in mind. I felt stable and I enjoyed school as a kid.

We had that apartment through a public housing program called Section 8 (which the city has since cut back). When my mother’s Section 8 voucher expired, we moved to a shelter in a different Brooklyn neighborhood. A year after we moved into the shelter, when I was 11, my mother died of cancer.

My brother and I went to live in kinship care with an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn. We missed our father, and after two years, he got custody of us. We lived in a family shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for 13 months. Then my father got his own apartment in Rockaway, Queens for himself, my brother, and me. My sisters went to live with different aunts.

A Shelter Isn’t Home

Living in a shelter as a kid was horrible. Every time my peers at school spoke about their life at home, I felt uncomfortable knowing I was homeless. The shelter didn’t have cable TV, which left me out of many conversations at school.

I was also filled with envy of kids who had a home with a mom and dad. I felt like I was different from everyone else, and this made me angry. I grew disobedient and rebellious.

When I was 15, I got in some trouble, and family court sent me to a residential treatment center called Graham Windham. This placement had cottages for residents, two kids to each room. Every resident had an assigned chore, and it was up to us to keep the cottage clean. We all had to be somewhere every hour of every day.

I didn’t like living in such a regimented way. None of my time was my own. If you were not where you were supposed to be at all times, you either had to do two extra chores for a week or spend a whole day in your room.

I lived according to this program for a year before the state discharged me back to my father’s house in Rockaway, Queens. My father and I have always had a troubled relationship. But it was, for a while, home, and in the spring of 2012, I started commuting to Berkeley College as an accounting major.

College was always my dream, and I earned a 3.4 GPA my first semester, despite the fact that Graham’s high school had not been very challenging and I had a lot of catching up to do. Most of my classmates at Graham did not go to college.

Losing Focus

Last summer my father fell behind on the rent, partly because he bought a BMW that he couldn’t afford. The landlord evicted us November 1 (coincidentally right before Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of Rockaway). My father went his own way. We still speak, but he’s never told me where he’s living or asked where I live now.

I went to a youth shelter in Manhattan called Covenant House. The first time I walked through those doors, the smell of vomit and old mildew attacked me. Two old people interviewed me; they didn’t seem at all interested in my answers. Then they sent me upstairs to answer more questions, including “Why did you have to leave your parents?” I said, “I’d like to know the same thing.” They tried to call my father, but they couldn’t reach him.

I was placed in a room with two other teenage boys. They played hip-hop on their radio very loud. I said to the boy with the radio, “Turn the music down. I’m trying to sleep.”

image by YC-Art Dept

He looked at me and I stared back. He blinked and said, “Why should I listen to you?” I stood up and said, “Because I have to go to school in the morning.”

He asked, “What school do you go to?”

I hollered, “Berkeley College.”

To my surprise, he backed down. He said that he wanted to go to school but that his life issues prevented him.

Unfortunately, I came to find out what he meant. Worrying about where I would live after the shelter gave me less time to study and take full advantage of school. The smell of the shelter made me upset every time I set foot in the door. I did not like sharing rooms with complete strangers. My classes were at night, so I was unable to make the 10 p.m. curfew at the shelter. This made it difficult for me to meet with my case manager and take the steps I needed to get out of the shelter and into more permanent housing.

I began to lose focus on school. During that semester, my grades drastically fell, from a 3.4 GPA to a 1.9. Falling below a 2.0 meant that Berkeley withdrew my TAP loans and tuition scholarship grants.

I told the advisers at Berkeley that I’d lost my home, and they cut me a break. They said I could get my financial aid back if I boosted my grades for the current semester.

Out of the Shelter

I’m not sure what would have happened to me without Ashanti, a girl I started dating in October. When I went to Covenant House in November, Ashanti let me leave my clothes at her mom’s house. She also told me I could take showers there, and she or her mom made me hot meals every day. I didn’t have to worry about going hungry if I missed the scheduled meal times at Covenant House or about the security of my property.

After I had been in Covenant House for two weeks, Ashanti’s mother invited me to stay with them. I am so grateful to her for providing me with a clean comfortable home and hot meals whenever I asked. I love Ashanti because she cares about me; I realized this when she started crying when she found out that I had become homeless. I feel lucky that her mother also has a loving heart.

Staying with my girlfriend helps me cope with the loss of my biological family. Ashanti and her mother fit my definition of a true family—people who never steer you away from your good intentions, and support the good in you.

Knowing I can leave class and go to an actual home has removed much stress from my life. Now that I’m living in a stable environment, I’m able to manage being a college student and hold a full-time job. Most important is good sleep, which helps me expand my mind and learn new things. I also have time to study and can focus better on my studies. In my third semester, I earned a 3.7 GPA.

Working Toward Stability

Ashanti’s mom has told me I can stay as long as I want. I try to help out by contributing $100 a month to the household. I appreciate what she and Ashanti provide me, but I miss my brother. All my life I have lived with him, through all those homes. I miss my three sisters too.

I am proud I am in college, but I still regret that I never had a stable home situation. When other students at Berkeley speak about their childhood experiences and their parents, I feel isolated and I often change the subject.

My desire to succeed as an accountant has a lot to do with how I want to live as an adult. Growing up, it was frustrating watching my father mismanage his money. As an accountant, I will handle money well. If I can provide measurements, assumptions, and adjustments of income and apply these concepts to financial statements, I will succeed.

I want to make sure that when I have kids, they stay together. Being a licensed accountant will enable me to live a comfortable life, and I will be able to provide my children with stability and the things they need.

Advocates for Children helps NYC youth who are homeless continue their education. Go to advocatesforchildren.org or call the Education Helpline at (866) 427-6033, Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This story is part of the financial literacy series, which is generously supported by NYSE Euronext Foundation.

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