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Helped Through Homelessness
My counselor showed me the benefit of opening up
Amber Perez
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When I was 12, my mom told my three siblings and me that we had to move into a shelter. I didn’t know what being in a shelter was like.

“I heard shelters have multiple people living in one apartment,” my brother Mark said.

“Well, I’m not sharing a room with people I’ve never met before,” said my sister Victoria.

Hearing that disgusted me. I don’t even like sharing a room with my sister; sharing a room with other families sounded gross. But I didn’t say anything. I hardly ever expressed my thoughts or feelings.

I had always been quiet. At school, I didn’t think I was as pretty as the other girls, and I didn’t talk much because I was shy. I hoped someone would talk to me, but no one did.

The shelter wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I had pictured it as a room full of people, just like my siblings told me. But we didn’t have to share our space with other families. The only problems were that we had one bedroom for five people and we were on the first floor. Our bedroom window was at street level, so I worried people could look in on us when we were changing, or climb through the window and rob us. But as usual, I kept these concerns to myself.

Living in a shelter made me feel even more shy and withdrawn since I was ashamed of living there. Even if I did make friends, how could I tell them where I lived? So during my 7th grade year, I focused on my classes. Although I wanted friends, I just stuck to myself. I hoped that one day someone would sit next to me in class and talk to me—and not just to get the answers to an assignment.

In 8th grade, a couple of kids finally talked to me. By that point, I had been living in a shelter for two years.

From Shelter to Shelter

My friend Taty, who lived next door to the shelter, was the only one who knew I lived in a shelter. One day she told me she’d stayed in a shelter when she was younger. I finally felt like someone understood what it was like to be in my situation.

In August, after I graduated middle school, my mom called me while I was at Taty’s house. She was crying.

“They’re kicking us out, we have to leave.”

We packed up our stuff, loaded it into a white truck and moved to another shelter.

A few weeks later I started high school. I wanted to be popular and have friends. The night before, I sat in my room with my mom and we talked for a while. “Maybe you should come out of your shell and talk to people. I know they’ll like you. What’s not to like about you?” my mom said.

“What is there to like about me?” I thought to myself. “I’m not that pretty, I don’t dress like everyone else, I don’t have a lot of money, and I’m living in a shelter.”

I knew it would upset my mom to say these things out loud so I just said, “Yeah you’re right.” Even though my mom and I have a bond, I don’t like telling her what’s going on in my head. She gets too worried. It’s already hard for me to open up, and her reactions only make things worse.

Ashamed

I was embarrassed and ashamed about where I was living. Still, I didn’t want to spend my high school years sitting by myself at lunch, so I decided to take my mom’s advice. When I walked into my first period class, I sat next to a girl and asked her name.

“I’m Amber, and this is Jayris,” she said as she introduced me to another friend.

“Hey, my name is Amber too!” I said excitedly. She was the first girl I’d met with the same name as me, so it felt cool. We sat together during lunch for the rest of the week and eventually I started making more friends.

But no one knew where I lived. Whenever friends asked if they could come over I’d tell them some excuse like, “My mother doesn’t allow company.” No one ever pushed the subject.

How Counseling Helped

One person at school knew I was homeless: my counselor. When I started high school my mom insisted that I go to counseling every week at school. I refused to talk to my mom and she knew it was important for me to talk to someone about what I was going through.

image by YC-Art Dept

I hated it at first. All they did was ask the same questions, like, “How’s your week going so far? How are you doing in your classes? How are you feeling today? Do you want to talk about anything?”

My standard replies were, “It’s going good, I’m doing good, I’m fine, no I don’t really have anything to talk about.” If it wasn’t my nature to open up why would I do it with strangers?

After meeting with a few different counselors, I was assigned to Ms. Millie. She always has a smile on her face and every time she sees me she asks if I’m OK, and even when I say I’m fine she knows when I’m not telling the truth. We have a connection.

You’re Not Alone

But even with Ms. Millie’s counseling, I started feeling depressed. Besides living in a shelter and feeling ashamed about it, I was stressed by my constantly fighting siblings. (They were stressed from shelter living too.) I was messing up in school, disrespecting my teachers, and missing class. Some days I cried. Then I started cutting. The cuts weren’t deep but they were noticeable. I ended up showing Ms. Millie and that was the first time I saw her cry. I told her I never knew life could be so complicated.

Ms. Millie helped me deal with it all. She’d often say: “I know you may feel alone right now but trust me, Amber, you’re not. There are a lot of kids in this school who’ve been through what you’re going through.” It felt good not being the only one. I felt a little less embarrassed. But I still refused to tell anyone where I was living.

She’d also say: “You want to be strong, Amber, for your family, but mostly for yourself. You deserve that. Create a distraction; get more involved. Sooner or later you’ll be out of there.”

I took her advice and joined an all-girls club called, “Her Story,” as well as youth court and youth service. I also figured the more clubs I was in, the more colleges would want me. And they did distract me, like she said. I also began pouring my hardships into poetry, which made me feel better. I only showed my teachers, although one day I’d like to publish them.

Just Keep Holding On

In the beginning of my sophomore year I was still a little on the edge. But I kept my head up. “One day you’re going to look back at all this and smile because you survived it,” my counselor told me. “Everything is going to work out, just keep holding on.”

I repeated those words to myself every day. I started focusing on why I was in school in the first place: to build a future and to learn. Soon my grades were back up to 80s.

Then, one morning in February, my mom took us out to breakfast.

“We’re out of here! I got the apartment!” she said.

I started jumping up and down. I couldn’t believe we were finally leaving. It had been two and a half years. But I didn’t trust it, so every night I prayed until it was official we were moving out.

A month later, we moved into the apartment where we live now. I love it; the rooms have lots of space and it’s located on the second floor, which is perfect because I hate climbing steps. I invite friends over all the time. It feels good to know that I can ask a friend to come over and say my house.

I still talk to Ms. Millie every day. (I’m only allowed to have a session with her once a week but I go talk to her every day for at least five minutes.) During my sophomore year I told her I didn’t want to have a new counselor every year. I wanted her to stay my counselor through the rest of high school—and she has.

She tells me she’s proud of me and that she sees me as a daughter. That means a lot to me.

Although I’m not happy I lived in shelters for almost three years, if I hadn’t gone through that I wouldn’t have met Ms. Millie, and I wouldn’t have learned to trust someone and let her help me through my difficulties. Ms. Millie helped me realize that living in shelter is nothing to be ashamed of. Writing this story and poems about that time in my life is my way of showing I’m no longer ashamed. I can now talk to my friends about my experience, and they don’t judge me.

Ms. Millie helped me appreciate my strength. Sometimes I remind myself: Wow, I did this. I can get through anything. I brought my grades back up and made honor roll, fought my shyness, made good friends, participated in a lot of clubs, and soon I’ll be off to college. Three years ago, I never thought I’d have accomplished so much.



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I am here today
To tell you a story about a long dark way.
Looking at me now, oh have I grown.
Can you believe I was once someone who didn’t have a home?
The uncomfortable furniture made it hard to sleep,
I could barely afford to buy sneakers for my feet.
The case managers were as mean as sharks,
Always doubting you and giving sarcastic remarks.
Filled with embarrassment every time I entered school,
Walked around like nothing was wrong so everyone was fooled.
My life was garbage, I was filled with pain.
Didn’t want any friends over, I was so ashamed.
But my family didn’t give up, no matter who said so.
I knew that one day we’d find the pot at the end of the rainbow.
And we did, oh it was so exciting.
No more sadness, or my family constantly fighting.
So don’t you turn back, don’t ever look away.
Despite all the struggles, I promise it’ll all be OK one day.

—Amber Perez



Homelessness: The New Normal

There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-2016 school year.

Source: Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness



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(NYC-2017-11-12)

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