Teenagers have it tough enough under the usual-and-customary circumstances of being 13-to-19 years old. Beyond the horrors of enduring puberty, there is everything from peer pressure to conform and anxiety over getting good grades to worrying about who Trevor or Tricia really likes – and why isn't it me? – or whether mother and dad's fighting means they'll split up.
Imagine coping with all of this and being in a homeless family at the same time.
Yet tens of thousands of teenagers cope with this reality every day. These are not runaways or were thrown out of their home for some reason – sometimes drugs, sometimes for behavior issues. Rather, they are all-American kids who attend middle and senior schools, study hard, have part-time jobs to help their parents, and try to succeed under impossible circumstances.
"It's a bad situation all around," a high school guidance counselor in St. Paul says. She knows at least six children in her school whose families are homeless. "Even though they're on the verge of becoming adults, teenagers still need the same secure home life that a four or five year old needs."
Three teenagers in different parts of the country talked with me by phone recently to share what their life is like.
He has an unusually deep and resonant voice for a 15-year old so I ask Joshua if he ever thinks about going into broadcasting. I raise it as an ice-breaker but he's actually considered the career possibility. "Maybe news would be cool," Joshua tells me, "or having my own radio show. In sixth grade I got to read the morning announcements over the PA and I kind of liked doing that."
Joshua – not Josh, I'm corrected when I call him that once by mistake – and his nine year old sister, Jennifer, live with their parents in a small house just outside Baltimore that belongs to Joshua's maternal grandmother, who's also in the house. There are three bedrooms and only one bathroom
The family lost their own house about 16 months ago. His father's heating and air conditioning company where Joshua's mother worked as bookkeeper, phone answerer and general factotum, failed in 2008 after more than 10 years in business. The part-time HVAC work Joshua's dad could pick up and the handful of bookkeeping assignments his mother got from neighborhood businesses did not generate a lot of income. The family fell behind on its mortgage and other bills, and eventually the bank foreclosed.
Joshua says the biggest problems of living with his grandmother are the crowding and lack of privacy.
"Grandma is in one bedroom," he says. "Mother and father are in another. I have the third bedroom and Jenn sleeps on a cot in the hall."
Like many students who come from homeless families, Joshua says his grades fell "a little" although he still gets mostly B's and earned an A in history this year. The reason? Finding a quiet place to study is a daily struggle for Joshua, who enters ninth grade in September. "I usually study at the kitchen table and can hear the TV in the living room."
So, too, is having a friend over after school or on weekends. "Everybody's always in everyone's business."
Instead, Joshua usually goes to the home of friends which also solves another problem: "I don't have to say why we live with grandma."
One thing hasn't changed for Joshua, though: Playing soccer, which he's done since he was nine although this year was a close call. He'd outgrown his soccer shoes and the family couldn't afford to buy him new ones. But when Joshua's coach found out he had a quiet word with the owner of a local sporting goods store who donated a pair of shoes.
"Mother was upset 'cause she thought it was like taking charity," the teen states. "Father convinced her it was more important to let me play. I'm just happy to be on the team."
Sometimes an unexpected hero can help smooth out a tiny corner of even a very rough life.
Theresa calls a 22-foot square motel room in Cleveland "home." For a 16-year old high school girl whose life has been in a near-constant state of turmoil over the past few years, she is remarkably sanguine about where she lives.
"I hated the shelter when we stayed there," Theresa tells me, "and living in our car for a few weeks was even worse. So this is OK. I mean, I can shower every day and there's a big mirror so I can do my hair."
She shares the small space, which is paid for with government funds, with her mother and 10-year old sister. Theresa's father committed suicide in 2008 after losing his job managing a small chain of stores that went bankrupt in the recession. He left behind a small life insurance policy which kept the family going for a while, but when their home caught fire and was declared uninhabitable, they had no place to go but on the street.
Theresa's mother was a stay-at-home mom who never went to college and has had trouble finding work since her husband's death.
"Sometimes she's been a waitress and she's driven a taxi," Theresa explains, "but nothing steady. I had a job for a while cashiering after school and on weekends but mom made me quit because my grades got real bad."
She says she's thought about quitting high school and finding full-time work to help the family but wants to attend university if she can get a student loan or a scholarship. Except for tduring he few months when she was working, Theresa says she has a B+ average and would like to be a veterinarian.
But she worries "if I'll be able to afford going to college that long."
She had to change high schools after the family became homeless because the motel where they live is on the other side of town and "it'd take me hours to get to my old school by bus." She has had trouble making new friends although she tries keeping in touch with old classmates by text and on Facebook.
"I miss them," Theresa says of her former school chums.
She seems determined to use the lesson of being homeless to her advantage. Theresa insists, "I want to make something of my life. I don't want to buy groceries at food banks and live in a crappy motel room.
"But I get discouraged sometimes," she adds. "It's hard not having friends to hang with and not seeing anything change."
Scott is royally pissed.
He hates his life, his parents for becoming homeless, his friends for abandoning him when the family was evicted from their Las Vegas house earlier this year, a group of kids at school who've been bullying him because he's homeless, and he's really mad at the county's children's services for trying to take him away from the mother and father he currently dislikes on general principles.
"They're all fuckers," he spits at me through the phone.
When the family lost their house, they moved into an RV parked on his uncle's driveway. An extension cord is plugged into an outside outlet for power and water comes from a hose that's screwed into a valve on the vehicle. Although Scott is an only child, he feels crowded and thinks of the Winnebago as a personal insult to him.
"I can't do anything in this shithole," he insists. "Either my mom or dad are around or my cousins come barging in or someone is telling me to do something."
Homeless children often feel angry about being forced into a situation that is totally out of their control. It's especially a problem for teens who are grappling with establishing their own identity yet find themselves unable even to have something as basic as a bit of privacy. It leaves them feeling angry at the world.
Anger is evident in nearly everything Scott says. He turns 17 next month and will be a senior in high school this fall. He isn't sure what he wants to do after graduating. "I don't have money for college and, anyway, why bother with more school if I'm gonna end up like this?"
Although his anger and frustration has not yet turned into lawbreaking or being disruptive at school, Scott admits to smoking dope "a few times a week," undoubtedly a way of escaping the pain he feels. And what hurts him almost as much as being evicted from the house – where he had his own room – is that his many of his friends banished him from their circle when the family became homeless.
"Like it was my fault or something," Scott says, the pain almost audible in his voice. "And then I get hassled at lunch and there are these guys who give me shit in the hallways."
He told his parents about being bullied but refused to let them contact the school "'cause it'd only get worse" if the boys taunting and beating him are caught and disciplined. So he just tries avoiding them as much as possible.
All of the negatives in his life has caused Scott to withdraw, both at school and from his family. His grades "are pretty bad" he says and he feels isolated. A school counselor has spoken with him about coping with his situation but Scott claims that he "doesn't need help."
In fact, he does. I tell Scott that I've been in his position and what seems like a night terror that will never end does, in fact, get better. But it's difficult connecting with a teen who is convinced that because everything he took as a given disappears, it will not always be like this.
Writing at Alternet, Tana Ganeva cites the Traumatic Stress Network as noting "Older children worry about being separated from friends and pets, and they fear that they will be seen as different among new peers at school."
Scott has most of these things on his mind. And while Joshua and Theresa may not express their concerns an openly as Scott, they are probably carrying around many of the same worries. It doesn't bode well for them or for America.
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My next book is about my experience becoming homeless. When published, I will donate a percentage of any royalties to homeless organizations.