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Shelter Life: Loud and Foul
When Mom kicked me out, I was in for a shock
Otis Hampton
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I knew I’d have to leave my mom’s house at some point—but I did not expect to live in a homeless shelter. It all seemed to happen so fast: One minute, I’m in the nice, warm house I’ve lived in for 16 years, with food, clothes, and entertainment. The next thing I know, I’m spending my nights in a shelter occupied by the men you see in the subways begging for change.

There were warnings. My relationship with my mom hasn’t been the easiest. She and her late husband adopted me out of foster care when I was 5, and she and I have been battling since I was 12 or 13. She hated when I undermined her authority; her rules made me feel like I had no freedom.

She’s threatened for years to kick me out if I didn’t listen to her or if I didn’t do well in school. She’s told me that if I didn’t change by the time I was 21, I’d have to leave. I turned 21 but didn’t worry too much. I thought she was bluffing because she always forgave me for disrespecting her.

But she wasn’t bluffing this time. Part of me knew that she’d reach her breaking point sooner or later, but a louder part of me refused to contemplate ever living on my own. Those two parts of me you could call my adult-self (preparing to be independent) and my kid-self (in denial, wanting to be taken care of).

But a month ago, she told me to pack my bags and be out the next day. Where would I go? I should have prepared to live on my own, but I hadn’t. I’m in community college, and I get a bit of financial aid for school expenses. But I’ve never held a job, and every place I apply tells me I need experience and a college degree.

Goodbye Comfort Zone

When my mom told me I had to leave, I felt so lost and confused. I also felt I had nowhere to go and nobody to turn to for help. I was terrified of the possibility of being on my own, out of my comfort zone. Even though we fought a lot and I wanted to get away from all the tension, I was comfortable at my mom’s place. Despite our shaky relationship, I still loved her and needed her.

Even before my mom kicked me out, my therapist researched places that take in homeless people. I hadn’t asked her for any help, but she could tell things were getting worse between me and my mom. My therapist believed that at 21, I shouldn’t be living with my mom anymore, and she gave me the address of a shelter.

It was an intake center in Manhattan. I saw a bunch of older men walking out of the building and got confused. I asked the guard, “What is this place?” With a straight face, he told me, “This is a men’s shelter. Entrance is through that gate.”

I asked him, “Were those the fathers of some of the residents here?” He replied, “No, sir, those WERE the residents.” I’d been expecting people closer to my age, not drunken, foul-smelling, crooked-toothed men in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. The fact that I was in the same boat as they were was surreal to me.

Terrified and Alone

Outside it looked like a haunted college, a tall, narrow, red brick building with ivy creeping up the walls. But inside it looked like a prison. Because of the word “shelter,” I was expecting a warm, welcoming place with hot meals, clean bathrooms with showers, and cable TV. My fantasies were just that. I dragged my heavy suitcase through the metal detectors, past the security guards, angry black men, and loud Latino men. I shut it all out the best I could with my iPod.

The guards told me where to go, and I waited for an hour. Then I was called to the window of a booth in the lower level of the building. The lady at the booth took down my name, age, where I lived before I came to the shelter, and medical history.

After that, I had to wait in a room with some of the residents. A couple of them were sharing their experiences of being in different shelters and how they ended up there. Their stories of getting beaten up or sent to jail from the shelter were so terrifying that I vomited and lost control of my bowels. Everybody in the room was disgusted and the custodians had to come clean it up. I was embarrassed but still scared. Because I had to take a shower and change, I got a glimpse of the dorms. I returned to the waiting room a half hour later.

I took the elevator to my room, which was on the 2nd floor, east wing. My room had two “beds”—wooden frames with springs and thin mattresses—a sink, and two lockers. Smoking was prohibited anywhere in the building, but that didn’t stop these men from turning a shelter into a chimney. They smoked in the bathrooms, hallways, and in their rooms. (Thank God my roommate didn’t smoke in our room.)

I missed decent food and drinking water, TV, video games, Facebook, a nice hot shower, and a warm bed. I missed my mom and my little brother Denzel as well as my friends and my girlfriend. Instead of a family member saying goodnight, a guard came around at 10:15 asking if you had signed for your bed. I felt so alone I cried—quietly, so no one would hear.

To Brooklyn

I lost a lot of sleep because of the constant shouting and smoking. I kept to myself throughout the entire stay. I was overwhelmed, and when that happens sometimes I just shut down, rather than doing what I need to do to change my situation. I was waiting for something to happen or someone to help.

After a dreadful four nights, I was told to see someone in an office within the building that provides social services. This shelter had a four-night limit, so you have to renew every four days. They sent me to speak with another caseworker who’d tell me where I’d spend the rest of my nights. She told me, “I’m placing you here…” but I didn’t let her finish.

I told her bluntly, “I’m NOT staying here. Isn’t there ANYWHERE else you could put me?” I could tell she was surprised by the look on her face. She said, “Well, there’s the Atlantic Avenue Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn.” I immediately told her, “I’ll take it!” To me, Brooklyn was home; it was where I grew up. I hoped its shelter would be more homey than the Manhattan one.

But the shelter in Brooklyn wasn’t any different than the one in Manhattan except for room size. Instead of housing just two people, the “dorms” were one big room like at summer camp or boot camp, with 20 men in each room. Instead of one roommate who snores and coughs like he’s dying, there were four or five. On the upside, the Brooklyn shelter allowed me to charge my phone and my iPod, which let me shut out all the noise. (At the Manhattan shelter, there were very few outlets.)

image by YC-Art Dept

The dorms had lockers where I could put my stuff away securely. All I had with me was my duffel bag full of clothes, my iPod and charger, and my phone with its charger. Just like I did in the Manhattan shelter, I kept to myself. Most of the residents seemed to be on drugs or using alcohol, and I didn’t want to associate with them.

Dreams

Before I knew it, I’d been living at the Brooklyn shelter for more than a month. I saw and heard people fighting and being sent to the hospital and vomiting. I saw feces in the showers. I hate cigarettes and I hate drugs, so living among people constantly doing both was awful, too.

I had a similar dream night after night, that the other men died from smoking or doing drugs until I was the only one living there. In my dream, the staff and security guards contracted lung cancer and died as well, and I ended up with the place all to myself. It was pleasant. I also started writing a fictional short story about rescuing my girlfriend and her coming to live in the empty shelter with me. When I get overwhelmed it’s hard for me to imagine unfamiliar situations–which might be why I dreamt of inhabiting the empty shelter rather than some random nice apartment.

I often woke up thinking I was back home and that the shelter was just a dream. That dream always died when I heard all the noise or when a guard came by to ask if I signed for my bed. Since I kept to myself, I didn’t feel threatened by violence. However, I felt like my health was at risk because of all the smoke. I worried about developing bronchitis or worse.

Lifelines

A few things helped me get through the first month of homelessness. My friends and family kept in contact with me throughout the day on the phone. I visited and texted with my girlfriend, Kwanasia, and my best friend, Dimitri. They were both very concerned about me, and that felt good. I got myself to school on time and wrote for Represent like I did when I was living with my mom. Doing those things made me happy and got me out of that crap heap during the day. (You had to be out of your bedroom at 8 a.m. and back by 10 p.m.)

My mom told me she didn’t want me to live with her, but she didn’t want me to stay in a shelter either. She said she wanted to help me get on my feet. She continued to do my laundry and buy me clothes, and she searched for an apartment for me. She gave me about $20 a week, and between the shelter food and that, I didn’t go hungry. I think she may have felt guilty about kicking me out, but she told a shelter caseworker who begged her to take me back, “My mind is made up.”

I had been dependent on my mother for a long time. It was scary knowing that I was now responsible for more than just cleaning up after myself and getting to where I needed to be on time. The shelter system does help get people on their feet, though. With their help, I applied for public housing. A social worker at my foster care/adoption agency helped me apply for Social Security benefits, which I’m eligible for because I have a mild case of cerebral palsy. I also signed up for public assistance including welfare and food stamps. Receiving public assistance will help with rent if I do get my own place.

Another obstacle for me is finding a job. I am considering taking a semester off from college to find work so I could get my own place. Not surprisingly, the experience, especially the loss of sleep, affected my performance in school. The first week of classes, my psychology professor noticed that I was falling asleep and we talked after class. I explained my situation to her and she was very understanding.

I have learned a lot about myself through this experience. I haven’t done everything I could to get myself out of the shelter, because I got overwhelmed and I shut down. I looked around the shelter and realized that nobody there cared about me, and I lost my motivation to help myself.

What kept me from completely shutting down was the encouragement of friends and family. Even a simple “Keep your head up” on Facebook could dry my tears and get me moving. Connecting with people energized me to get up and search for jobs and do other things that could help me get out of the shelter.

See "Below the Poverty Line" for an update on Otis’s life.



Youth Drop-In Centers in New York City
Get help here finding housing, jobs, something to eat, and more

The Door
121 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10013
(1/A/C/E train to Canal St)
212-941-9090 ext.3249

Safe Horizon
209 West 125th Street, Manhattan, NY 10027
(A/B/C/D/2/3 train to 125th St)
212-695-2220

SCO Family of Services
89 South 10th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11221
(J/M/Z train to Marcy Ave.)
718-384-7083

Safe Space NYC
89-74 162nd Street, Queens, NY 11432, 718-526-2400
(E/J/Z train to Jamaica Center)
718-526-2400

Bronx Community Pride Center
448 East 149th Street, Bronx, NY 10455
(2/5 train to 3rd Ave-149 St.)
718-292-4368

Project Hospitality
126 Bennett Street, Staten Island, NY 10301
(S40 Bus from Staten Island Ferry)
718-876-4752

For more drop-in centers and shelters, go to the link below, then select “Runaway and Homeless Youth” from the top dropdown box: nyc.gov/html/dycd/html/afterschool/search.shtml

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