This story originally appeared on HomeRoom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education. This essay is written by Jahnee S., SchoolHouse Connection’s Scholar.
I was 8 years old when I first experienced homelessness. Homelessness then became a struggle that my family and I couldn’t escape. I experienced standing in the snow, hoping my family and I had a place to sleep on a church floor; how packed and unsanitary emergency shelters are, as I got lice within two days of staying there; how “The Florida Project” brought me flashbacks to the many months my family lived in motels, and how I viewed peers with “the basic necessities” with such envy. Constantly moving and being disappointed led me to become extremely detached and avoid relationships of any kind out of fear of abandonment. Eight years later, at 16 years old, I was still experiencing homelessness. Though homelessness was not new to me, this experience as a 16-year-old was the most difficult because I was on my own without a family.
I began to struggle significantly with depression, and I often felt unloved and unworthy. I remember my mantra echoing in my head, “If everyone I ever loved left me alone, why should I care about my future?” My deteriorating mental health made me question everything about high school and if I would ever be able to walk across that stage. In October 2016, I became truant. I was part of the 87% of teens that experience homelessness and drop out of high school.
I did end up reuniting with my family eventually and we secured temporary housing in a new state, but at that point, the trauma and depression were so deep that my mental health had not changed. I saw no purpose in enrolling back in school because I was so overwhelmed. I had a major decision to make for the following school year – would I go back to school? I spent what would have been my freshman year alone, in an unknown city, left with a decision that would change the trajectory of my life.
During this time, my life consisted of me waking up at 11:30 am and watching television until I heard my brother’s soft knock on the door. Seeing my brother’s smile as he told me about his bus ride and what he had learned made me yearn to rediscover subjects I once had a passion for such as creative writing. At the time, I was also witnessing the effects of living ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and I saw the intense labor and extreme hours those without education were having to work just to get by. I realized that I wanted an education and a future that wasn’t filled with the struggles my family had battled throughout my entire life.
It was there in that small apartment that I recognized the strength and resilience I had acquired from my numerous homeless experiences. I learned the importance of my narrative and how I could impact future generations that had similar experiences of homelessness. I dealt with the flaws of the public school system when it came to keeping homeless youth in school and I started looking into a career in social work. When my mental health was stable, I made the decision to enroll back in school as a freshman to ensure that my actions would break the cycle of poverty that encompassed me and my family.
I re-enrolled, and when I finished my freshman year, I had a 4.1 GPA. It was at that moment that I knew that my hard work had been worth it. My key to success that year was that I reached out to my debate coach and disclosed what was happening at home. This was not an easy thing to do, as I used to think I had to keep my home life private, but ultimately it connected me to the support system that helped me stay in school. During this time, I also found a group of friends and extra-curricular activities that I enjoyed and things started looking up.
Unfortunately in May of my sophomore year, I felt a sense of déjà vu. My mother was once again hospitalized, we all were displaced, my brother moved away, and I moved in temporarily with a friend. Even though this experience was jarring and traumatizing, I reacted much differently than I would have two years ago. I accepted and understood the circumstances and coped by calling my mother and brother every single day. To this day, I am still an “Unaccompanied Homeless Youth,” and unfortunately, this year I lost my mother. Though I am doing the best I can, I still struggle with feeling alone as I navigate life, school, and personal struggles.
Throughout everything I went through, my support system at school kept me focused and made sure my needs were met as best as they could. I have excelled academically and I have been involved inside and outside of school. As a student who has experienced multiple definitions of homelessness my entire high school career (living with other people, unsanitary trailers, homeless shelters, with friends), I’m now able to channel my emotions into discussions and plan on using my story to help other high school teens. I want to become a governmental social worker in order to fix the issues prevalent in the education system and create more accessible resources for homeless children and youth. In the near future, I want to write a book and conduct research on how urban cities attempt to solve housing insecurity and the impacts of gentrification. I want to be a voice for those who are underrepresented and left behind.
Though I have made the most of my circumstances, I am still experiencing homelessness. I still feel the effects of years of complex trauma, mental health struggles, and financial barriers as I work to afford college. Throughout these struggles, school continues to be a critical support for me. I am thankful for my school system, Project UP-START (the McKinney-Vento Program at my school), SchoolHouse Connection, and my debate coach Ms. Charles for their unending support. Because of them and my perseverance, I will be walking across the stage on June 7th as a high school graduate and attending college in the fall. I would say that if you’re reading this and you work with young people experiencing homelessness, know that what you do matters. By showing empathy and providing a safe space for students experiencing homelessness to learn and have their basic needs met, you can help ensure that they too can pursue their goals and find a way out of an often unbreakable cycle of homelessness.