My dad and I haven’t had a home for three years. This is how I made it through.
(Editor’s note: This is the third of 13 student essays we’ll be publishing for Education Lab’s Student Voices program, which is partnering this year with Project Homeless. Know a student with a story to tell about homelessness or education? Email Project Homeless’ engagement editor, Scott Greenstone, at email@example.com.)
For three years, I ate ramen noodles every night. To this day, the smell of ramen makes me gag.
My story begins with struggle and ends with being homeless. My dad and I haven’t had a home for three years. I have lived in places I will never be able to call or recognize as a home.
What’s worse: I’m not the only kid in rural Washington that grew up this way. According to a count earlier this year, almost 2,000 people outside of Washington’s five most populous counties were part of a family that was homeless.
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I was 13. I lived in Chimacum, Washington. My father, Chris Ferguson, worked at the Port Townsend Paper mill; the town called it “the smell of money.” It smelled like mud and rotting cabbage, but in Jefferson County that was the place to be to bring home $1,800 every two weeks.
It was just my dad and I in a house made of brick that looked like a tiny castle. One day, my father was diagnosed with a rare eye disease called ocular histoplasmosis that gave him a bacterial infection in his eyes. My father can actually see the scar tissue floating around in his eyes; eye doctors call them “floaters.”
My father applied for disability payments three times. He was denied because at first they thought we were getting money from my birth mother, but my father hasn’t been married for 14 years and I have not heard from her in almost four. We never saw a drop of that money, and they’ve been denying us ever since.
I knew I had to step up, because my father had been putting food in my stomach and clothes on my back as a single parent since I was 2. I had to do what a normal teen wouldn’t do. It was time for me to take care of my father, just like he took care of me.
We left Chimacum and moved into a tiny camper at my uncle’s house in July of 2016. My father took the bed, and I would take the couch or the floor depending on what felt more comfortable. But my uncle had seven people living on his property, and food could be scarce. I didn’t always get three meals a day, although my uncle always tried to find a way to make sure I wouldn’t go to bed hungry. Still, some nights I did, and I don’t blame him for that at all.
Winter came, and there was no heat in the camper and not enough blankets to keep us warm. We knew once winter passed that we couldn’t make it through another, so we moved out of the camper and into my aunt’s garage, where there was a little more space.
We were able to make three small rooms in the garage. At this time, my father and I were getting help with cash assistance and my aunt asked us to pay $300 a month in rent, which only left us with $120 a month.
It’s difficult for two people to live on that amount of money; I wore the same three pairs of pants, whether they were dirty or ripped. I wore the same two tank tops, even though they didn’t fit or were just dirty. I didn’t have shampoo, conditioner or body wash most of the time; I was extremely happy if I did. The most painful thing was wondering whether or not my father had eaten that day.
When you’re poor, it is easy even for your family to take advantage of you. We had to move out of my aunt’s garage because of money and into a place that gives me nightmares — a place I will never call home. We moved in with people who I thought were family — my second cousins — but I guess we just shared the same last name. They thought they had power over us because they gave us a bed to sleep on. That money we lived on every month was not ours the entire time we stayed there, and when they bought food with our food stamps, we couldn’t touch it. There were many nights my father and I watched them eat the dinner that our money had bought.
It got to the point where we had to start selling our personal items just to eat. Sometimes a friend of mine would give us old cakes from her work. Most of the time I baby-sat a lot, just to make sure my father had something in his stomach. I was only 15.
As I write this, I’m sitting in an RV owned by my new stepmother. I call it “the little home.” It’s been much easier since I’ve gotten a good paying job. I actually got to take my father out to eat at Mod Pizza, one of his favorite places.
Through all of this you have just read, I bet you’re thinking, how did I make it through this all? Each day I wake up, and it’s a new day. A new day to fight and thrive for the future. I will continue each day to do this, until I know I made it good for my old man, just like he did for me on his own. I’ll give it all back to him someday. That’s the biggest promise I make.