By Beth McCullough, McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison, Adrian Public Schools, MI

They had lived in five different places within six months. Their path included staying with friends, two shelters and a motel. When all of their resources were spent, I put them in a motel for a week with no idea of where they were going to go after that. I was with them in their desperation when the mother sat on my couch in tears. “I just have to hold it together. The kids can’t see this,” she would say. So she would come to cry in my office and we would talk about the next step.

“Did you finish the application at the housing agency? Did you follow up on the apartment you found? Don’t forget the parent/teacher conferences tonight. How much do you have set aside? Are you ok on food? You have dinner for tonight and tomorrow, right?” I did my best to walk that line between compassion and prodding. In the end, they found an apartment and I was able to provide the last $200 to get them into permanent housing.

I helped her find some household needs and then, as often happens, the daily contact went down to once a week and then I didn’t hear from them at all. I checked attendance and it seemed all was well. There is an ebb and flow to these interventions. They didn’t need me anymore, which is good because I had a few new families that needed a tour guide through the maze of homelessness. Not hearing from a family I worked with daily is usually a sign of success.

I saw them in a store. The Mom yelled my name and I stopped to talk. “How is it going? Did you find a better couch? How are you settling in?” I asked.

“We are still unpacking the storage unit,” she told me. “But we are throwing away boxes. We haven’t thrown away boxes in a long time. We fold them up and keep them to move again, you know? Wow, we are throwing away boxes,” she said, as if she finally heard what she had said. It sank in for a minute that throwing away boxes meant stability, maybe the end of the road.

“Wow,” I said. “Throwing away boxes, finally throwing away boxes…just wow. That must feel good.” She looked at me with tears in her eyes. I felt it. Settling in means more than unpacking, it meant starting to believe you are stable, that you don’t have to move again. We looked at each other in silence for a minute. My eyes were welling up too. Then one of her children ran down the supermarket aisle and threw her arms around me.

“Miss Beth, Miss Beth, we got a tree. We got a really big Christmas tree.”

I laughed, “Good, I’m glad you got a tree . Decorations too?”

“You bet,” the mother said. They went to one of the charities and the only tree left was a 7 foot tree. It didn’t fit in the apartment so they just took off the top of the tree. It looks like it is going through the roof. How fun! They found used decorations and they are decked out for the holidays. The Mom showed me a picture on her phone of the 7 foot, now 6 foot tree. With a final hug, and brushing away a few tears, we both continued on with our shopping. They might want to keep the box for that tree but all of the rest of those boxes can go… finally.

Beth McCullough, McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison, Adrian Public Schools, MI

Beth McCullough is the McKinney-Vento homeless liaison for Adrian Public Schools in Adrian, MI.  She has created many innovative initiatives for homeless children and youth in her community, including “Roadmap to Graduation,” one of the nation’s first Host Homes programs for unaccompanied homeless youth. In 2012, she was named a White House “Champion for Change.”

For the past seven years, Beth has written an essay a week about her experiences working with students experiencing homelessness. The essays comprise her “Sanity Project:” managing the stress of a homeless liaison’s job through detailed, astute observations, and sometimes uncomfortable reflections. We are honored that Beth has agreed to share her essays as part of our Guest Perspectives blog.

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