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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Living in a Shelter Wasn’t As Bad as I Thought
Rianna Russell

When I was 10 years old, my mom, sister, brother, and I lived in a brownstone apartment in Flatbush. We had a three-bedroom with a kitchen and living room; I shared a spacious room with my younger sister. Our pink walls were filled with eye-catching posters of Beyonce and Rihanna, family portraits, and drawings. The wall on my side of the room featured beautiful stenciled butterflies that my mother had painted. My brother had a small but comfortable room to himself.

My sister and I watched loads of television, from the Disney channel to soap operas. We also played video games on the old box TV in our living room. After school, we often hung out with neighborhood friends in the nearby park. We went to the local library a lot.

But after my mom lost her job as a nanny, she couldn’t pay the rent one month, and the landlord kicked us out. I was in 5th grade. My parents are divorced, and my dad lived in an apartment in a beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood. We thought we could stay there temporarily. However, he refused to take us in because he didn’t want that burden. So we stayed with my aunty and other friends, moving every few days while my mom looked for another job.

After five months, she decided we had nowhere to go other than a shelter.

Surprisingly OK

“Put all your shoes in this box,” my mom managed to say in between short breaths. She appeared flustered by all the packing we had to do, exasperated from running back and forth between the storage unit and our home. I knew she was stressed about being unemployed and the abrupt move. But she still managed to remain calm, which helped lessen my anxiety.

We finally arrived at the shelter in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, an hour’s bus ride from my old apartment in Flatbush. It wasn’t what I expected. At the entrance, I was met with the aroma of cleaning supplies. This smell wasn’t off-putting; rather, it felt warm and welcoming. The large room was brightly lit. I felt almost lied to. “Is this it?” I asked my mother, as my eyes widened in disbelief.

I had pictured an unclean environment with small, overpopulated rooms. However, it wasn’t like that at all. The shelter had given us a two-bedroom apartment with a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. So, although it wasn’t as comforting as my home, it was surprisingly OK.

Of course, there were some adjustments. My mother, younger sister and I shared one room. There were two twin beds that my mother pushed together to make one king-size bed for the three of us girls to sleep in. My brother got his own room because according to mom, “Boys need their own living space.”

Since my sister and I had to sleep in the same bed, her legs usually found their way over to my side when we slept. “Could you move over?” I asked over and over. She would respond with murmurs and continue to invade my space.

Furthermore, I found it annoying that I was constantly surrounded by my whole family. In my old apartment building my sister and I were often hanging out with neighbors, but here we were cooped up together all the time. There were kids my age at the shelter, and we were polite to each other in the hall, but we didn’t make friends.

Losing My Freedom

When we moved into the homeless shelter, I lost much of my freedom.

We could only check in and out of the shelter as a family, so none of us could come and go individually. This often felt like an invasion. And we all had a curfew of 9 p.m. If my mom broke curfew by even five minutes she was reprimanded. So I couldn’t go to my friends’ houses after school, or have sleepovers, or anything else I’d normally do on my own.

image by YC-Art Dept

Plus, I was ashamed of living in the shelter and didn’t want anyone to know.

“Ri, are you coming with us to Popeyes today?” my friend Carolina asked. I had been living in the shelter for about three months. I made excuses rather than tell her the truth, and I could see she hoped that this time I would say yes.

I replied anxiously, “No, sorry, today I have to go to my after-school program.”

I hoped my friends wouldn’t see my mom waiting for me across the street from the school. I used to be able to walk home, but now we had to take a bus. Each day my mom picked my siblings and me up and we began our journey toward our new temporary home.

I didn’t talk to my mom about the things I missed about being in our own home because I knew that she was already under pressure. I’d hear her cry in the bathroom when she thought I couldn’t hear.

After awhile, my friends stopped asking me to hang out with them. I felt grateful no one asked me questions. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through. I felt like it needed to be a secret. Instead, when I got home from school, my sister and I made up imaginative games together. One was “cash register.” We’d make fake dollars and coins and make-believe sell different things in our apartment. Being in a shelter actually inspired my creativity rather than inhibiting it.

Lucky to Have My Family

Fortunately, we were only in the shelter for about a year. My mom got another nanny job, and we were able to move into a new apartment not too far from our old neighborhood.

Many people associate shelters with slums and think of them as dirty and small. People’s perception of living in a shelter influenced me and made me think of my situation as worse than it actually was. I consider my experience privileged when I think of people who are homeless on the streets with nowhere else to sleep.

My mom described the shelter as one of the largest apartments she has lived in. The living room was the equivalent of two bedrooms in my old apartment. Even though I moved from a place that meant so much to me to a place I could barely call “home,” it didn’t feel traumatic. A big part of that is because I was still with my family.

Perhaps most important, my mom made life easier by staying consistent in how she conducted herself. As a single mother, she was faced with the struggles of not being able to provide for her family the way she wished she could. However, she remained herself by cracking jokes and instilling important values.

I often remember her reiterating the same phrases like, “Hard work pays off” and, “Make sure you get all your homework done before you watch television.” She didn’t allow us to use living in a shelter as an excuse to slack off. The way my mother dealt with these hardships taught me the value of strength and responsibility.

It’s been six years now since we moved out of the shelter, and we haven’t experienced any other significant hardships. But sometimes, in the back of my mind, I feel worried we might have to return to the shelter someday, because my mom is the only one taking care of us.

Even though my family’s struggles with poverty have passed, it has changed my perspective. Having to move out of our house overnight made me grateful for what I do have, because I know it can be taken from me in an instant. Now that I’ve been through that crisis, I look back on that time as preparation for other obstacles that I have yet to face.

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