October 5, 2016

'We Moved So Many Times I Didn't Think It Was Strange'

By Hoa K. Vu

Roughly one out of eight New York City public school students have been homeless sometime during the past five years, according to a recent estimate by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. With family homelessness remaining at record levels, tens of thousands of children are growing up in shelters. In her own words, one tells her story.  
One night four years ago, while other children were enjoying the end of a lazy summer day, I was sitting outside an apartment building with all my stuff. My mother often told me not to sit on the sidewalk, but tonight she didn’t say anything. My brother sat on a suitcase with his head down. It was late. The city streets were quiet. We had been evicted from our apartment.
It was a good thing no one was around because I hated the look people gave me when they felt sorry for me. The landlord gave me that look when he and his wife saw my brother and me packing up our toys. The cops who told us we needed to leave gave us that look when they saw us place our suitcases on the sidewalk. 
The first time we moved was when I was around 7. Until then, I had grown up in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens with both parents and my brother.
My mom used to work in telemarketing, but she stopped when my brother was born. After my father left, she didn’t seem able to support us. My mother would convince a landlord to let us move in, but after we couldn’t pay the rent for a few months, we would have to move to another place. This was a pattern that I considered normal. We moved so many times I didn’t think it was strange.
That night four years ago, my mother took us in a cab to her brother’s house in Brooklyn. Though we lived in the same city, I had never met him.
When we got there, he wasn’t answering the door. “I know they are home. I called them before we came here,” my mother murmured. 
There was a tree in front of the house that I leaned on as I waited. The night air kept me cool but it didn’t help the burning sensation in my eyes as I fought off sleep.
My mother eventually called the cops to have them tell my uncle to open the front door. The cops shined their flashlights into the window and knocked loudly. My uncle opened the door.
“We have no space for you,” he said in Vietnamese. He closed the door without even a goodbye.
The police officers said that they knew an organization that could help us called PATH [the City Department of Homeless Services Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing intake center, the portal to City family homeless shelters] in the Bronx. But they said they only allowed two bags per person. We took another taxi loaded with all our belongings to the police station first so we could organize our things.
My mother went back and forth taking stuff out of the cab, debating whether or not to throw items out. She told my brother and me to get rid of some stuff too. Adios, UNO cards. Goodbye, textbooks we forgot to return to school. So long, TV.
But I insisted on keeping my stuffed animal collection, which I still have.
At PATH, I could barely keep my eyes open. It was around 3 a.m. They told us to sit in the waiting room until morning. As I fell asleep in that office, I felt sadness that was so deep.
Since that night, shelters have been my only home. I’ve moved in and out of four shelters in four years. Almost from the first night, I started acting differently around people. I used to be the conversation starter—a friendly girl who was so sure she would be friends with everyone forever—but not anymore. I didn’t want to make ties to people that I would have to cut when I had to move again. Because I carried this logic with me I never made many friends. 
I also grew to resent my mother and to blame her for our situation. I feel like my mother never does what the caseworkers tell her we need to do to get housing or even public assistance. 
When I’m at the shelter, which I now consider my home, I feel so powerless. But when I’m in school I have absolute control. Because of that I work hard. Even though I changed schools every time we transferred shelters, I still managed to stay focused and do well. Through three different high schools, I maintained a 3.7 GPA. In March, I graduated and was class valedictorian.
I’ve just started attending New York City College of Technology. After I get my associate’s degree there, I plan to attend a four-year SUNY college upstate. I scheduled my classes for the morning so I can get a job in the afternoon and start to save money.
I’m hoping that over the next two years, I can get more comfortable with the idea of leaving my mother and brother without feeling guilty so I can move upstate. I’m trying to find my own way out of homelessness.

Reprinted with permission from YCteen magazine. Copyright 2016 by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. (youthcomm.org). YCteen is a magazine written by New York City teens. Their stories are developed in an intensive writing program at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth strengthen the social, emotional, and literacy skills that contribute to success in school, work, and life.