When I started high school, I kept my homelessness a secret. But by the end of freshman year, I found myself telling the whole school.

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth student essay we’ve published for Education Lab’s Student Voices program, which is partnering this year with Project Homeless. This essay includes very personal details about the life of the author, who is a minor in high school. Because of her age and family situation, The Seattle Times editors asked the author, who submitted it with the intention of using her name, if we could publish this essay anonymously instead — a rare decision. If you have any questions about the publication of this essay or others, please email Scott Greenstone, Project Homeless’ engagement editor: sgreenstone@seattletimes.com.

Freshman year, I stood outside the double doors of Tumwater High School, facing the chaos of high school with the typical anxiety of a 14-year-old. But, on top of that, I had a secret: I was homeless. At that moment, before the bell rang for 1st period, I made a decision to hide my secret from my peers.

No matter what positives you bring to the table, you can’t destroy the stigma that is built around homeless people. I wasn’t planning on letting anyone in on the fact that I slept on the floor of my best friend’s house most nights.

The first four months of my freshman year, I hid my secret as easily as a bruise or a grumbling stomach, until one day I was called to the counseling center. The fear I had of my secret being revealed was crippling, and I’d avoided the counseling center because I didn’t want to speak into existence that my mom and I had lost our home just a year before due to her debilitating depression. Or that she had been put in the psychiatric ward of our local hospital six days before my 13th birthday, after overdosing on prescriptions to quiet her demons.

As I sat in that office, the counselor’s soft voice and smell of lavender coerced the words and heartache out of my mouth. Once I said, “My mom and I are homeless,” it created a bond with my school counselor that I will cherish the rest of my life. I’d spend as much time as I could in her office, talking about the things that made it hard for me to focus in algebra, or watching “How I Met Your Mother” after school was out. We became best friends, and it pushed me to excel in school because I felt love and support.

In May, my school put on an assembly called “Elephant in the Room,” to encourage students to utilize their counselors. My counselor encouraged me to talk. As terrified as I was to open up, the idea of being able to reach one person and make them feel like they aren’t alone was enough for me to agree to it.

The day of my speech came, and I was the last person to talk. As soon as I walked on stage, and the hot, beating lights made it so I couldn’t see the audience, I felt like everyone could see every single bead of sweat that rolled down my forehead. I talked about how I had walked in on my mom in a bathtub full of red water, diluted from her blood, and how she tried to kill herself while I was in bed right beside her.

It was the most terrifying and most rewarding experience. Peers told me that my story had resonated with them and helped them deal with their trauma. A classmate told me she cried during my speech. “I related so much to what you were saying. You are what made me want to talk about my trauma and try and get help,” she said. She’s now one of my best friends.

Months went by and all seemed to be looking up in my life. Then, in August of 2017, my mom moved out of state to better her mental health, and I moved in with my dad after not seeing or hearing from him for four years. My dad didn’t want me talking to my school counselor anymore, so she had to take me off her schedule. Tension rose, and in October my dad kicked me out.

I was back to my friends’ floors and couches. At one point, I slept in the baseball dugout across from my high school. It seemed like everything in my world was shattered, and no amount of glue could mend it. I dropped out of my A.P. class and stopped attending school, so my grades dropped drastically. Planning on dropping out when I turned 16, I was on an aggressive downhill path to ruining my life.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

· Find out more about Project Homeless  

Then, my counselor came to my rescue again: She told our school’s family support advocate, Lindsey Bates, about the circumstances I was in. Mrs. Bates called me into her office and told me that I needed to stop throwing my education away. She said she wanted me to live with her.

Over the next few months, she pulled me from the hole I had dug for myself and taught me how to value life again.

I’ve come a long way. Today I’m in my junior year of high school, going to college full time through a school program and living with the support of the Bateses. I have parent figures who love and support me like I am their own kid. I have come so far, and the future can only get better from here.

(Illustrations by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle TImes)
(Illustrations by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle TImes)

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