Last Resort for Family in Danger (and)

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When Homelessness Hits Home

Los Angeles has more than 40,000 homeless people and New York has nearly that many, including 9,000 families with children living in the city’s shelter system. Many of the homeless are children and teens living in families, or young adults recently discharged from foster care. Among the factors contributing to homelessness are the family conflicts depicted by these two young writers. One describes how domestic violence forced a family into homelessness, while the other decides to work harder at solving problems at home after spending one night in a shelter trying to escape them.

Last Resort for Family in Danger
By Keshia Harrell, 17

One night when she was 13, Laquana Knight heard her mother and her mother’s boyfriend arguing in the next room. Something told Laquana to see what was going on.

When she walked in, she saw her mother’s boyfriend pinning her mother down on the bed. Laquana jumped on his back and started hitting him, yelling, “Get off my mother!” He did, but he kicked her mother and hit Laquana before he left the apartment.

The domestic violence was nothing new, but that night, Laquana’s mother had had enough. She called the police. They told her to pack her bags and call a domestic violence hotline. The hotline suggested she go to a shelter. They left that night, ending up in the shelter system for two long years.

“It was hell. It was the worst thing that ever could have happened to me,” said Laquana, 16. “The rules and regulations, the setting. It felt like jail.”

We may think that homelessness mostly happens to drug addicts and older people. The reality is that many teens like Laquana live in shelters with their parents. And many times, young mothers end up turning to shelters for support.

In fact, 18- to 25-year-olds with young children make up almost half of [New York] City’s homeless family population. Across the country, three out of 10 homeless adults were in foster care as children. And some experts say that almost half of youth leaving foster care become homeless within a year.

In New York City, the number of homeless families has soared to more than 9,000. Back in 1983, the number of families seeking shelter was barely 2,000. And they are staying longer than they have in the past. The average family stays for nearly a year.

The increase is directly related to the economy getting worse, especially after Sept. 11. Many people lost their jobs and it’s been harder to find work. Some people suddenly couldn’t pay their rent. Plus, apartments in New York have been getting more and more expensive for years.

The city government has made efforts to fix the problem. For instance, it has doubled the number of beds in family shelters and doubled the city budget for homeless families. The city also tried harder to move more homeless families into regular apartments.

Some people believe the homeless population is going up because certain programs people need are only available to families that are homeless. It’s nearly impossible to get a Section 8 housing voucher, which helps poor people pay the rent, unless you’re homeless, which makes shelters tempting.

Many shelters provide their clients with strong support services, like free job counseling, day care, medical services and therapy, which clients might not be able to afford if they were out on their own.

But for most families, staying in a shelter is not a good experience; it’s a last resort. When Laquana first got to the shelter, she felt a big relief, because she believed her life would have been in danger if she and her mother had stayed at the apartment. At the same time, Laquana felt angry, because it wasn’t her fault that they ended up there, but she had to suffer anyway.

The shelter was right across the street from her junior high school. People at school would ask her why she was always coming out of there, so she’d say she worked there. “I was embarrassed,” she said.

The rules at the shelter were strict. No one was allowed to know where they lived because it was a domestic violence shelter. So Laquana couldn’t have any friends over because it might put others in danger. She and her mom couldn’t have a telephone, so they could only use a pay phone at certain times.

Laquana had to share a room with her mother, and their apartment was inspected often. If it wasn’t found to be clean three times, they could’ve gotten kicked out.

Finally, after nearly two years in the shelter, Laquana’s mom found them an apartment. In their new place, Laquana feels much better.

“I have my own room, my own space, my privacy, and more freedom,” she said. “I don’t have to worry that if I leave the house dirty for one day, someone will come upstairs with an inspection sheet. It feels great.”

Shannel Walker contributed to this report.

One Night at a Shelter Was Enough

By Shannel Walker, 17

Just a few weeks after I returned to my grandparents’ home from a group home upstate, my grandfather and I got into an argument. He said I couldn’t have my own set of keys, and I started yelling. He called my father and said he did not want me in the house. I thought to myself, “This fool is really crazy. What the hell is his problem?”

Ten minutes later, my father came to the door while I was watching TV. “Let’s go,” he said. I ignored him. He said it again, so I packed my bag and we went out the door. My father asked me, “Are you coming to my house?”

“No,” I said, but I really wanted to say, “Hell, no, just take me to my damn aunt’s house,” because my father and I do not get along.

He brought me to my aunt’s house, but my aunt said I could only stay one night, because she had someone moving in the next day.

I didn’t think I’d have to find somewhere to live that wasn’t with family. I mean, I used to run away and stay with friends or people I met, but this time I didn’t want to do that, because of my daughter. She was down South with my grandma, but if the foster care system heard I ran away, they might take away my pride and joy. I love my daughter too much to risk that.

The next day, I had to decide where was I going to stay. None of my friends could help me out. My social worker just said, “Tell us where you are going to go, or give us a call when you get there.”

After that, I was so mad. I went on to yet another plan, and that was to go to Covenant House, a shelter on 41st Street for teens.

I’d been there once before, for two days, back when I was running away. I didn’t have a place to stay and I’d found out it was free to get in there, so I went. It turned out a friend was there and I had a lot of fun. It was clean and they gave me a nice quilt to sleep under.

This time, though, I was feeling tired and alone, so I wasn’t in the mood.

When I got there, a lady who looked like she didn’t care about what she was doing checked my bags at the door. Another guy asked me some questions and did my paperwork.

Then I went upstairs to the girls’ ward. That place really needed Jesus because it was so damn dirty. I reminded myself, “You only have to stay here for one night.”

A lady made me read the rules out loud. I thought, “Do they think we need a kindergarten education?” Then she gave me a locker that she had the key to, so if I wanted something I’d have to ask. I went to the bathroom after that, wiping the toilet seat off and then putting some tissue on it because it was nasty.

I also went to the staff and asked for Ajax and a sponge to wash the tub out with. Then I took my sheets to the Laundromat and washed them. I was trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

That night I had to sleep in a lounge area on a mat instead of in a room on a bed because I hadn’t had a TB shot. I was thinking to myself, “This is a b-tch, sleeping on the floor. But this mat is way better than my father’s couch.”

The next morning, I was mad and upset about the whole thing. Even spending one night out by myself was depressing. I realized I didn’t like the group home I’d been in upstate, and I didn’t like the shelter, so I had no choice but to put up with whatever problems I was going through at home. At least at home, I don’t have to sleep on the floor or worry that the linens are dirty.

Even though you won’t hear me saying I really like staying there, next time I have a disagreement with my grandparents, I think I’ll just listen to them. It feels nasty to be alone in a shelter, and I know from experience that it’s even worse to be out on the street.

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