Searching for Home
Image by Mario Schmidt from Pixabay
Many of us have seen homeless people in one form or another at some point in our life. One of the most common places you've probably seen someone who was homeless is on the streets of major metropolitans. Usually, it is someone with a cardboard sign asking for money, occasionally accompanied by a dog. This is often what we think of when we say someone is homeless, but homelessness extends beyond living on the street. While I, fortunately, did not have to sleep on the streets, I did spend all of my teenage years living motel to motel. I vividly remember how my family lost what we called home, and the struggles we faced to make a "home." Many people don't consider living in a motel as "real" homelessness, but I believe that this lack of traditional housing has some of the same damaging effects that unsheltered homelessness has, especially for adolescents.
There are many ways countries have attempted to encompass all aspects of homelessness into something quantifiable but due to its complexity, no single definition can paint the full picture of the homeless population. One attempt that has been generally accepted for defining homelessness is the United Nations' Human Rights Council. They define homelessness as two tiers: "(a) Primary homelessness (or rooflessness). This category includes persons living in the streets without a shelter that would fall within the scope of living quarters; (b) Secondary homelessness. This category may include persons with no place of usual residence who move frequently between various types of accommodations (including dwellings, shelters, and institutions for the homeless or other living quarters)" (Farha). According to this definition, the homelessness I experienced would be considered secondary homelessness. I was not always homeless, but my childhood is marked by instability.
Nobody ever thinks that they'll lose everything they considered home, at least I didn't. While I had to move a lot as a child, never staying at the same school for more than a grade level at a time, my mother and I still had a home to come back to at night. This changed in the summer of 2010. At this point in life, my mother had been with an emotionally abusive boyfriend, Travis, for about 4 years while we lived in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area. My mother and I were met with criticism, cruelty, and controlling behavior daily. He would often start screaming about little things that weren't done as soon as he said to. Even when things were done, it was never good enough and we would be met with more insults about how we were worthless. One of the last things he said to me will forever be seared into my mind: "For as smart as you are, you're so stupid!" This took a significant toll on my mother, whom herself became abusive towards me. Any accomplishments I had were never acknowledged. It never was enough. Travis having control over the household was not enough for him eventually, and soon all bills had to go through him before being paid. This caused us to barely slip by paying the bills due to Travis's excessive spending. My family had little money from my mother's social security check; despite this, Travis continued to lose or quit jobs over any inconvenience. Sometimes it reached a point where he would get fired from three different jobs within a single month. The bills eventually reached a point where we came home one day to an eviction notice on our door and nowhere else to go.
Moving everything took the majority of our income for the month and we could only realistically take what would fit in my mother's SUV. This forced us to sell most of our belongings to make up for the bills we couldn't pay and because we had nowhere else to put them. What we could sell in a short amount of time left us with just enough money to get a motel for the night. The motel we stayed at was a notoriously bad place, but it was all we could afford. We were surrounded by other people who otherwise would be homeless themselves. Police cars became a daily sight from drugs and violence. I initially thought living in a motel was just a temporary solution, but I could never imagine living in one for the next eight years.
When school started, we still lived in a motel, all I could think was "I hope nobody ever sees me living here" and always feeling like one day everyone will find out and I'll be mocked relentlessly. This constant fear caused a lot of anxiety and shame about myself and my family. While I had a few friends, I would never invite anyone over for my birthday or just to hang out. I was careful to not been seen outside too long in case someone I knew from school was to see me. Most of my days were spent alone on the computer and I began the habit of retreating inward from the rest of the world. After all, nobody has to know where I live on the internet, so why should I face the shame that comes from meeting people in person?
Seeing my mother and Travis fight every night and having nowhere to get away from it anymore was one of the most powerless times of my life. Motels— even long-term motels— don't have more than a single room with a bathroom and sometimes a small kitchenette. Instead of being able to put physical barriers between the endless arguing and me, I was forced to hear and see it every night. I no longer had a bedroom I could make my own and retreat to when I was overwhelmed. Going outside was never an option either since I was also considered "part of the problem" and that their arguing was in part because of me. Most days I dreaded going "home", but since I never was allowed to participate in after-school activities it was the only place I could go. I would often blame myself for no longer having a house, no longer having a place to retreat to, and no longer having the family I wanted.
At this point in my life, we had been living in various budget motels for the past three years, and while there were bumps here and there, I didn't think it could get any worse than it already had. Years of constant abuse eventually reached a point where my mother gave up everything. All our finances were under his control, and anything he wanted always came first. My mother and I would accommodate him and his needs before we could do anything for ourselves. Due to his immaturity about money, more bills were left unpaid and we lost nearly everything. Phone service was cut off, groceries only consisted of the basics, and the only car we had was impounded. If we needed to go anywhere it had to be walked to, sometimes a cab if we had some extra money that week. Walking long distances was a major challenge for my mom due to her arthritis. It had left her joints in constant pain and caused her legs to swell so much that she could no longer wear tennis shoes. The longest walk we had to make was to the local Wal-Mart, about a mile one way, to get groceries which also had to be carried back. Travis did not offer to help, of course. We were eventually able to get another car again, but it was on the verge of breaking down at any moment.
In August 2013, we were forced to move again due to massive layoffs in Knoxville. Our only option was Miami, Florida, as Travis believed he could find work there. Moving to Miami was the best and worst part of my life. The city, the culture, and the cuisine were beautiful. I was also able to choose what school I wanted to attend rather than what was in the district. Despite the amazing attractions the city had to offer, it also came at a high price. Miami was much more expensive than Knoxville was, even with the slightly higher income my family had. This put pressure on my mother to find some way we could have a place to sleep at night, forcing her to go back to work after being disabled for five years. We were also forced into pawning most of our belongings when we ran out of food. Home life became more of a war zone, my mother tired from work and stressed about paying bills and Travis blaming all the problems we were having on me and her. Fights escalated to things being thrown and broken almost daily. Arguments became screaming matches at the top of their lungs. For me, this was where everything I had bottled up came exploding out. From spending days in bed doing nothing to severe anxiety about messing up in front of them, I decided that the only way to regain control over my life was to cause physical pain upon myself. It became a comfort when emotions became overwhelming and a punishment when I would do anything wrong. In a world full of chaos, coping with physical pain became easier than coping with my emotions.
I was still 13 when I "saw the light" and decided to reach out for help. After confiding in a teacher I trusted, I was ordered to get a psychiatric evaluation before I was allowed back in school. Even though I wasn't an immediate harm to myself or others, I opted to be admitted to the Jackson Behavioral Unit in Miami. My experience there was not the "crazy house" media portrays it as, but every move was monitored. I was also the youngest person on my floor which felt intimidating. Overall, I was only there for five days and quickly progressed to less strict guidelines. It was things we take for granted in the outside world like longer phone calls and later bedtimes, but in there it was completely freeing. It was here that I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Suddenly a lot of my behavior made sense and having something to call it gave me some comfort. Instead of having no way to convey how I was feeling, I had at least some method to communicate my emotions. Going home at the end of my stay at the behavioral unit was peaceful for a bit, but soon things reverted back to the chaos before I left.
Between 2013 and 2016 nothing much changed. By this point in my life, homelessness became some "state of existence." The situation just was what it was, and I had to accept that whether I liked it or not. The days blurred together as all I did was wake up, go to school, come home, argue, eat dinner, and go to bed. I continued to struggle with mental health and was never allowed to see a therapist about it. I also was not allowed to take medication for it anymore. This caused me to continue to internalize how I felt. Some of my loneliest memories came from this time as well. Throughout high school, and I never invited any friends over despite accepting my situation. I spent my "sweet 16" alone, and when I wasn't alone that day the air was filled with a toxic cloud of abuse. Even sunny days felt gloomy. If I got too comfortable being happy then the eventual fall back into depression would hurt worse than if I was never happy to begin with.
The happiest day of my life, while it didn't feel like it at the time, was in October 2016 when Travis walked out while my mother and I were away. We were going to pick him up at his work, but he never showed up. At home, all his things were gone. He seemed to leave just as quickly as he came into my life. My mother and I struggled for a while as the major source of income was gone, but eventually, we gained our footing. When the dust settled after he left, it was like a huge weight had been lifted and I could finally breathe for the first time I could ever remember. I could finally look back and see that I did what I had to do to survive. My relationship with my mother slowly improved as she realized I was the only thing she really had. The wounds from years of abuse are still there and sometimes hurt, but at least now they can finally start healing.
My story of being homeless and dealing with domestic abuse is in no way unique. Every day across the United States there are about 84,000 school-age children and teenagers who live in motels long-term ("Homelessness"). This population is also more susceptible to internalizing disorders such as major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and externalizing disorders such as alcohol/drug abuse and conduct disorder. Nearly 1 in 3 homeless adolescents has an internalizing disorder and 3 in 4 having a conduct disorder. Alcohol and drug abuse are slightly lower with 2 in 5 homeless adolescents (Yoder). The environment a homeless teen grows up in also has a large impact. While studies vary, the consensus is that this population is at a severe risk for family abuse. A study by the Network of Runaway and Youth Service found that as high as 70% of homeless youth in shelters have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse from their family (Bao). On top of all the physical or sexual abuse, homeless adolescents lack access to basic medical care. There are many barriers to access such as cost, distrusting authority, or confidentiality issues ("Homeless"). Minors, unless they are emancipated, also can't apply for the majority of government assistance available. Getting a traditional job also isn't possible for everyone due to lack of banking or no permanent address. While not all homeless adolescents have severe problems, it is prevalent enough that it should not be pushed under the rug in the United States.
The effects of abuse and homelessness I experienced throughout my entire adolescence are still being felt today. Internalizing my emotions continues to be a problem, making communication about how I feel a challenge. Making new friends is also very difficult, and I am always anxious that one day the few friends I do have will leave. I also never picked up some social cues in conversation, making it hard to maintain conversations with follow-up questions. I still find myself succumbing to depression some days, but without being surrounded by negativity it has become easier to overcome. Finances are still a struggle. Now that I am able to get things for myself, it is a challenge not to spend all my money at once on materialistic things. While I wouldn't wish my experience on anyone, I believe that all that I have went through has made me more appreciative of what I have now. Being able to see my mother without fearing that I did something wrong, having a more permanent living situation, and having a better support system continues to give me hope that my past will not define who I am or what my future entails. I wouldn't want to go through those 10 years again, but I know that if I ever have to, I will be more prepared the second time around.