Clay and I were a lot alike in high school, but when we parted ways for college, our lives went dramatically different directions.

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(Editor’s note: This is the first 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’s engagement editor, Scott Greenstone, at

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  

When I met Clay, we were brace-faced middle schoolers. I had a crush on him, but it seemed like every one of my friends did too. He was a class clown with a Justin Bieber haircut, enough to make any pre-teen girl swoon. We were close friends for years and dated during junior and senior year of high school.

I always knew that I wanted to attend a four-year university. He decided to stay in our hometown, attend community college and transfer.

Clay and I were a lot alike we lived in the same ZIP code and had access to the same education  but his single mom was a teacher, while my parents owned a business together. And when I left home to attend the University of Washington, I lived in a sorority paid for by my parents. He slept in his car.

Clay’s experience completely changed the way I viewed homelessness.

Soon after I decided to attend UW, Clay’s mom lost her teaching job. In fall term, as I moved into my sorority, Clay’s family could no longer afford their home. His mom moved in with her boyfriend an hour away, and he faced a decision: break his social ties, quit his job and move to Texas to live with his dad, or couch-hop and continue his post-graduate plans.

While home for winter break, I went with Clay to visit his house for the last time. He had moved his things into his car and a friend’s house. We walked through the bare-walled hallway and into his room, now empty of everything that once made it his. He started to get upset, but instead of giving him time to say his goodbyes, I nervously wiped his tears and suggested that we leave. I couldn’t grasp his emotional state; I had said my share of goodbyes to homes, but always to move into another.

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So began five months of displacement for Clay. Winter term, while I was adjusting to life in Seattle, battling homesickness and seasonal depression, he was living out of his car and couch-hopping, experiencing homesickness and depression of a different nature.

“I just always felt like a burden to everyone,” he said. “I felt the safest in my car, but at the same time, it was just a car.”

Throughout this time, it was very difficult for me to think of Clay as a “homeless person.” My perception of homelessness was vague; I saw old men with long beards in tents when I went to downtown, or women standing at intersections with cardboard signs. Clay looked me in the eye and told me “I’m homeless, I need help,” but my high-school sweetheart and my mind’s idea of homelessness just didn’t add up.

It was spring term before I really took Clay’s homelessness seriously. While I was figuring out my major, Clay withdrew from his classes at community college to work and save money for an apartment but then, while running a work errand, he totaled his car, broke his femur and had to get surgery.

Arranging a place to stay while he recuperated put him in a state of panic, and even with help from me, family and friends, it took him over a year to recover both physically and mentally.

A few weeks ago, Clay showed me around his new apartment excitedly: He’s in the last stage of moving in. Clay was lucky enough to have people lend a hand and give him the stepping-stones he needed to reach stability, but many who are experiencing homelessness don’t have that relief.

Clay’s experience taught me that homelessness isn’t an issue that can be put in a simply defined box. The conversation surrounding homelessness has to step away from a place of fear and apprehension and be greeted with empathy, compassion and a desire to learn and listen. Why tie our hands with fear of homelessness, when they could be the helping hands that someone needs?

Emma Scher is a junior this fall at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is a sociology and journalism double major, a staff writer for the UW Daily, a sociological-research intern and part of the Greek community on her campus. Originally from San Diego, California, she’s learned to bring the sun to Seattle.

Read more from Student Voices here.


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