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Life as a Homeless Teen

It's hard to believe that Elizabeth*, a bright and cheerful 17-year-old, grew up homeless. After her long, difficult journey with only a positive attitude to guide her, Elizabeth tells us how she finally made it "home."


I was born in Mexico. I don't remember much about my first few years growing up there-just that life was really hard. My mom never had money, and there weren't any jobs. So when I was 6, my mom, little brother and I came to the United States. My mom wanted us to have a better life.

We moved to California, near Los Angeles. My mom thought she had a good place for us to live, but that didn't work out. Mom's only choice was to take us to a homeless shelter.

The afternoon we arrived at the Bible Tabernacle shelter, I was so scared. The shelter was dark and crowded with families. The chapel was filled wall-to-wall with people. We had nowhere else to go, so we made the best of it.

Rules to Live By

Everyone who lived there had to keep their possessions outside in large storage lockers. All we brought from Mexico were two bags of clothing and a doll for me. But while at the shelter, we got head lice and were forced to throw out all our clothes and replace them with used stuff. I was so sad. We had to throw away these beautiful handmade dresses from Mexico. I'd always felt like Cinderella when I wore them.

Each day at 6 a.m., everyone was required to go to Bible reading. Then we went to our lockers and gathered what we needed for the day-clothes, toiletries, books. Next, we'd wait in a long line to take a shower, which was timed. Once, my mom accidentally went over the time limit and was humiliated when the staff came in to tell her she had to get out. And I really hated the ladies' room. It had one mirror, a sink and two doorless stalls, so there was no privacy!

At 8 a.m., we ate breakfast in the basement. I felt like a beggar, standing in that long line. When it got too noisy, the director flashed the lights in the dining room and said, "Stop serving!" until everyone quieted down. It made me feel so low, like we were nothing.

After school, I came straight home because dinner was at 4 p.m. If you missed it, you wouldn't eat. So I couldn't hang out with friends or do after-school activities. After dinner, we had to attend church service. If we didn't go to church, we couldn't live in the shelter. We weren't allowed to watch TV, but we could listen to religious radio stations. At night, we had to sleep on the pews in the chapel. It made me incredibly angry. I thought, "Why can't I just be like everyone else?" But I knew my mom was working hard cleaning houses, trying to save enough for a place of our own. The least I could do was understand.

My friends had no idea I lived in a shelter. I was too ashamed of being homeless, so I told them I didn't have a phone and that my mom didn't allow guests. Girls would say, "Your mom is so mean!" That hurt because she's the nicest person, but I couldn't say anything to protect her. I felt terrible lying, but I felt even worse telling the truth.

My mom knew it was hard for my brother and me. She reminded us that there are places where kids didn't have half of what we had and told us, "There's nothing wrong with living in a shelter." It was so hard to believe sometimes.

Moving Out, Moving Up?

My mom cleaned houses so she could be with us after school. This was a sacrifice because she could have gotten a much better job. After three years in the shelter, a woman my mom worked for invited us to live with her. It was the most amazing thing, since we had nothing to offer in return. I'll always be grateful for how comfortable she made us. But my mom felt we were a burden, so we moved back to the shelter after a year.

When I was 10, my mom received government aid so we could get our own apartment. We could cook our own food, watch TV and live in a clean house! I was so happy!

Still, I couldn't escape my past. A boy who heard we'd moved from a shelter teased me, saying, "At least I never lived in a shelter!" I felt so terrible that I ran into the bathroom crying. My friend came in and asked, "Why would he say that?" I lied and told her I didn't know. I was too ashamed to tell her the truth.

A few months after we moved, my dad came from Mexico to live with us. But it wasn't long before their relationship went bad, and we had to leave him--and our apartment. I was so upset, but there was nothing we could do.

My mom found a family who let us live with them in exchange for her babysitting their kids. But the six months we stayed there were awful. The family got angry if we ate too much, and they constantly yelled at us, "This is not your house!" It was like we weren't even human beings.

'Fessing Up

Once again, we moved back to the Bible Tabernacle. I was 12, and the shelter had changed. It was cleaner, and we shared an apartment with other families so we didn't have to sleep in the chapel.

By then, I had become best friends with a girl at school named Emily. She was the easiest person to talk to, and we got along really well. She was my first best friend, probably because I'd never trusted anyone as much as I trusted her. Even so, I was too embarrassed to tell Emily where I lived, so I lied to her.

My conscience never stopped bugging me so, after a year, I decided to tell Emily everything. Since we didn't have a phone, I wrote her a letter saying, "The real reason you haven't been able to come over is because I live in a shelter, and it's so embarrassing to me." It was such a relief to tell her the truth, but I was afraid she wouldn't like me anymore. A few days later, Emily wrote back, "I will always be your best friend. Living in a shelter is nothing to be ashamed of. You should have told me!" I cried because I was so happy.

Emily asked if she could spend the night, and I was so excited! I couldn't believe anyone would want to stay with me in a homeless shelter! We had the greatest time, playing and dancing with all the other kids there. It was the first time I felt like a normal kid.

Life is so Unfair

As hard as it was as a little girl, being a teen in the shelter was even harder. It was still really strict. I couldn't hang out with friends, join clubs, play sports or be a cheerleader because of my curfew. I thought life was so unfair but, deep down, I was grateful because I knew that, when it was cold, I had warm food, clothes and a roof over my head.

Still, some people are really mean. It hurt when strangers saw us get off the Bible Tabernacle bus and pitied us, saying, "Oh, you poor thing." I'd think, "Please don't treat me any differently."

When I was 14, Emily moved away. It was so sad, and we decided we'd be pen pals. But we lost touch with each other. I'll never forget Emily because she was the only person I ever trusted enough to tell the truth.

Home Sweet Home!

That same year, my mom saved enough money to rent an apartment again. Finally, we were really on our own--with a phone and no curfews! We're still here, and it's amazing. Even though we didn't have electricity at first, I was so happy, sleeping on the floor in my own room with the light coming in from outside my window. It was the most peaceful feeling in the world.

My mom works at a grocery store now. It's so much better because it's a steady job, and she gets great benefits, like health insurance. My brother is doing well and is growing up to be, well, a normal teenage brat! Actually, he's a good kid and never gets in any trouble.

Since I've always had good grades, I received financial aid and will attend community college this fall. I hope to become a social worker so I can help other homeless kids. It's hard for kids to understand what's happening, and I would love to make it easier for them.

Even though it was tough, being homeless has made me more understanding of others and really appreciative of what I do have. My friends complain about little things when they should be so grateful! My mom always says in her prayers, "Although we've been through a lot and don't have much, we have each other." Family is the most important thing you can have--even more important than having a home."

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

POSTED ON 12/15/2009 7:01:00 AM

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