The dirtiest word in the United States if often the word homeless. Homeless. Say it to yourself. How do you feel when you hear it? What adjectives do you associate with the word? What do you often picture when you think of that word? People sleeping on the streets, who are dirty, and have a can at their feet begging for change are what I always thought that word was. It was a dirty word.
Growing up I often lived in less than ideal housing. Bugs, fans and space heaters where a common occurrence in my home. And I was okay with that, because I’d often think to myself, at least I have a home. At least I’m not homeless. I can deal with the cold, because I have a bed to sleep in. I can deal with the bugs, because at least I have a fridge with food in it. I tried my best to always remember what I did have and not focus so much on what I didn’t have.
Little did I know, five years ago today, I too would become one of those filthy homeless people. At the age of 16 I was told to find somewhere else to live, because we were being evicted and I would have to figure it out. The Saturday before my junior year of high school I packed up as much as I could, left all the furniture, and moved in with my boyfriend (now husband). My twin sister soon followed because his parents were kind, and generous, and didn’t see me or her as the filthy homeless girls. There are two things I’d like to share about my journey with homelessness that I hope allow people to expand their thoughts and dialogue on homelessness. One, perception is incredibly damaging and two, it’s not about the home, it’s about the feeling of loss.
The perception of homelessness in America is incredibly harmful especially for children and youth who become homeless. The narrative is often based on accountability, and it’s the narrative of many to say, “pull yourself up, get a job, and stop being irresponsible.” Or the narrative is that of “those people are mentally ill, and it’s sad”. These perceptions tell such a small story in comparison to the wider perspective. In 2016, according to the U.S. department of housing and urban development, “Over one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were children” and “35 percent of the homeless population were families with children”. These number don’t even include the families who are housing insecure or live with many others to survive. The causes for homelessness in the United State
The shame I carried was overwhelming. My parent at the time put up a Gofundme page asking for help and I was so ashamed of the fact that I was homeless, I asked her to not put my name on it. The first week of school was terrifying because I didn’t want my peers to know, and I didn’t want my teachers to know. I was so involved in extracurriculars and in school, I was so nervous everyone would look at me as the filthy homeless girl because the perception of homelessness in this country is one that has a sympathetic response, or a response that says, “you didn’t do enough”. There is no empathy for the homeless individual.
During my junior year I still tried my best to excel because I wanted to be someone, and I worked to be better than what I had experienced. But with that being said I was a difficult student that year and some of my behavior during that year was truly inexcusable. I was a kid, who wanted to be anything but homeless and I wanted to feel something other than shame. Therefore I would truly like to thank all my educators, administrators, school board members and anyone else who helped me those last couple of years of high school because without those individuals who extended grace and saw the potential in me, I would not be where I am today.
We have to change the perception of homelessness and poverty in this county. We need to ask ourselves, “How can I extend grace?”, “How can I extend empathy?”, “How can I encourage accountability without tearing another down?”, “How can I make sure to not generalize populations?” “How can I work to not shame others?” These questions need to be asked, especially as we consider homelessness, poverty, and other issues in our society that we are so quick to judge on.
Second, homelessness is not about the lack of housing, but it's instead about loss. I lost most of my belongings. I lost what I had considered as my household and the relationships that I had with my siblings. I lost my understanding of family relationships, and what I had become accustomed to. The grief of loss does not only extend to an individual’s death, but it can extend to many areas of our lives. We are all grieving some kind of loss, especially during the pandemic. And I was grieving what I had known. I was in the midst of loss. And I was incredibly blessed to be able to find housing with my now husbands’ family, and they were and still are incredibly generous, and I could not be more thankful for them and the support system I had at that time. But for the first couple of months I lived with them, I truly felt as though I was an imposter. Eating food from somebody else’s fridge, not my own. Sleeping in someone else’s bed, not my own. And it felt as though not only had I lost what was my home, but I was also stealing from another’s home.
That year was by far the most difficult year of my life. And I don’t think I will ever live a year as bad a year as 2015. Even in 2020, amongst the chaos, and the loss of life, and moments that could have been, I am still okay. I am still in a place of love. I have a home, and I have my moments of loss, but I am living in a space of light. I am living in the stability of knowing who I am, who I love, and in the knowledge that I will never be homeless again.
Homeless. The word that made me feel shame, pain, and it made me feel less than and dirty, is the word in which I reflect on in the moments in which I exhibit strength. Homelessness is by far the best thing that happened to me because through the darkness, loss, pain, and trauma, I was able to rebuild into an individual who is driven, passionate, empathetic, generous, and most of all strong. I have perseverance for days and I am no longer ashamed of my narrative because it's apart of who I am, and its apart of the journey to who I have become.
Below are links to donate to Beirut bomb victims and child refugees. There are millions around the world who are homeless due to natural disasters and conflicts, which were most definitely circumstances out of their control. All the money given to the organizations below goes to families and children, and it’s beyond necessary that even in this economic recession we give what we can, when we can because at the end of the day, we are all human. And please share this story with anyone, and everyone. I hope that by telling my story of homelessness it can change perspectives and allow others who have experienced homelessness to feel less alone, and less ashamed. Remember YOU ARE THE CHANGE.
A collection of pictures from 2015: