The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Homeless, But Not Hopeless
Hoa K. Vu

One night four years ago, while other children were enjoying the end of a lazy summer day, I was sitting on the sidewalk outside my apartment building with all my stuff. My mother often told me not to sit on the sidewalk, but tonight she didn’t say anything. My brother sat on one of our suitcases with his head down. It was late. The city streets were quiet. We had been evicted.

It was a good thing no one was around because I hated the look people gave me when they felt sorry for me. The landlord gave me that look when he saw my brother and me packing up our childhood toys. The cops who told us that we were evicted gave us that look when they saw us place our suitcases on the sidewalk.

Every time we moved, we got the look that became known to me as the look of pity. And we moved a lot. The first time was when I was around 7. That’s about when my father left us. Until then, I had grown up in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, with both parents and my brother.

My mom used to work in telemarketing, but she stopped when my brother was born. After my father left, she didn’t seem able to support us. My mother would convince a landlord to let us move in, but after we couldn’t pay the rent for a few months, we would have to move to another place. This was a pattern that I considered normal. We moved so many times I didn’t think it was strange. But as I got older, I realized this was not a healthy way to live.

Shelter Bound

That night four years ago, my mother took us in a cab to her brother’s house in Brooklyn. Though we lived in the same city, I had never met him.

“I know they are home. I called them before we came here,” my mother murmured to herself. The cab driver helped us unload our stuff.

We were standing outside; he wasn’t answering. There was a tree in front of the house that I leaned on as I patiently waited. The streetlights were bright. The night air kept me cool but it didn’t help the burning sensation in my eyes as I fought off sleep. Finally, I sat down on the sidewalk.

My mother eventually called the cops to have them tell my uncle to open the front door. When they arrived, they shined their flashlights into the window and knocked on the door. My uncle opened it.

“We have no space for you,” he said in Vietnamese. “Maybe you should go to Ma’s house.”

“Ma doesn’t have a place for us,” my mother replied.

“What are you saying?” one of the police officers asked. My mother then told them in English, “They have no space for us. We need to find another place to live.”

My mother walked away and my brother and the officers and I followed. My uncle closed the door without saying goodbye.

“This is some messed up stuff,” one officer said to the other. “She has kids, for God’s sake. I would have moved them into the living room at least. Move some furniture aside. I mean, they’re family.” The other police officer nodded in agreement while looking at my brother and me with that look of pity that I hated.

image by YC-Art Dept

Adios UNO Cards

The two police officers knew an organization that could help us called Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing, or PATH. But they said they only allowed two bags per person. We took another taxi loaded with all our belongings to the police station first so we could downsize and organize our things.

My mother looked through our possessions, debating what to keep and what to throw out. Then she walked to the city garbage can down the street. She told my brother and me to get rid of some stuff too. Adios, UNO cards. Goodbye, textbooks we forgot to return to school. So long, TV.

But I insisted on keeping my stuffed animal collection, which I still have.

When we arrived at PATH, which was in the Bronx, I could barely keep my eyes open. It was around 3 a.m. They told us to sit in the waiting room because the office hours were over; we would have to wait until morning.

That night I felt hopeless. But most of all, I felt sadness that was so deep, the kind a kid like me should never have to feel. I felt like the world was cruel. I felt sad that I had no place to sleep. I felt sad that all of these bad things happened to us and there was nothing I could do about it. I remember losing my faith in God that night.

After I flossed and brushed my teeth in the public bathroom, I lay down on the row of chairs, curled up, and went to sleep, making sure that I wasn’t kicking our bags that were sprawled out beside the chairs.

Starting Over and Over and Over

For the next four years, I moved in and out of four shelters. My mother didn’t do what the caseworkers told her to so we could get housing or even public assistance, which is one of the requirements to continue living in a shelter. Every time we moved, I had to start over with a new caseworker and try to explain my mother’s refusal to talk to them, which I didn’t understand myself. Eventually, they all gave up on us.

As I got older, I tried to talk to my mom about the things the caseworkers wanted us to do, such as applying for cash assistance, housing, and food stamps—or having her start job hunting. She just ignored me or put me off by saying she’d done it, although I knew she hadn’t.

For some reason, my mom doesn’t believe caseworkers are there to help us. She says they just want us to sign their papers and make money. Every time she ignores the caseworkers, every time she talks about how bad they are, every time we’re forced to move from one shelter to the next, I resent her more and more.

I see how different we are. For instance, my mother believes college is a waste of time while I think it’s an essential path to success. She also thinks that you can stay in the homeless shelter system for as long as you want, while I know that you can’t, and why would she want to? That she thinks this is an OK life for us also makes me resent her.

Lucky to Have My Brother

Living in shelters changed me. Almost from the first night, I started acting differently. I used to be the conversation starter, but not anymore. I grew quiet. I didn’t want to make ties to people that I would have to cut when I moved again. Because I carried this logic with me I didn’t make many friends.

image by YC-Art Dept

But I haven’t felt alone or lonely, because I have my brother. He has been through what I have been through. I can talk to him about anything knowing he will keep it between us. We talk about music, shows, and sometimes, when we’re up for it, we talk about what we’re going through and what we dream of having some day.

We talk about sharing an apartment and splitting the rent, but eventually I want a house in the suburbs, maybe Long Island. My brother wants a green Kia, but I’d be happy with a minivan so I can cart around my kids. I want a room to myself. He wants to maintain his high school friendships.

Finding My Way Out

My mother doesn’t want people to help her. But I am slowly becoming accustomed to trusting people and relying on their help.

For instance, I’ve opened up to my adviser and a few other teachers, and they’ve helped me plan for college. Even though I changed schools every time we transferred shelters, I still managed to stay focused and do well. Through three different high schools, I maintained a 3.7 GPA.

When I’m home, I feel so powerless. But when I’m in school, I have absolute control. I think because of that I work hard. In March, I graduated and was class valedictorian.

In a few weeks, I’ll be starting college at New York City College of Technology. After I get my associate’s degree there, I plan to attend a four-year SUNY college upstate. I scheduled my classes for the morning, so I can get a job in the afternoon and start to save money so we can move out of the homeless shelter.

It is still unclear to me why my mother acts paranoid and doesn’t do what she needs to do to get us a stable home. But I’m trying to find my own way out. I’m hoping that over the next two years, I can get more comfortable with the idea of leaving my mother and brother without feeling guilty, so I can move upstate.

I believe I have found my faith in God again. I think He has a plan for me, although I don’t know what it is yet. I do know I’m looking forward to starting college, studying graphic design, and meeting new people.

Experiencing homelessness is something no child should have to go through, but one positive is that it’s made me sympathetic toward other people who are struggling, and less judgmental. I think the world is still cruel, but now I have a thicker skin so I can survive in it better. I’m still afraid and worry I’ll have nowhere to sleep next month. But I have hope that the future will be better.

How Homelessness Affects Other Teens Like Hoa

By YCteen staff

According to a report released in August by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, about 127,000 New York City public school students—or one in eight—have been homeless at some point in the last five years. The effect of housing instability and poverty on these students is immense.

Children who experience housing instability struggle more academically, not because they have less potential than other kids, but because they must constantly deal with the stress of uncertainty—will they have food, clean clothes, a safe place to sleep?

In spite of these extraordinary challenges, the new report shows that, like Hoa, those who live in shelters for all four years of high school graduate at similar rates as their low-income peers who have homes.

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