"Pat, I'm scared. I had a really bad dream. Can I sleep in here with you?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Chloe. Of course you can," I answered. And I put my arms around her and wrapped her in a comforter and once she'd finished relating her horrible dream, she fell back to sleep.
I have many kids of every age in my life all the time. I work in a homeless shelter. The kids at work overflow into my home life. It's the saddest job benefit in the entire world's occupations. It's sad because these kids should live in a home somewhere safe and warm. And it's a job benefit because if homeless kids must exist as least I get to spend time with them.
Every week one or more of the shelter kids come to my house. We cook homemade food together, watch movies, dance, talk and laugh. Some of the homeless kids are homeless because of parents' poor choices, parents' economic situations, parents' illness, or parents' neglect and/or abuse. While it's often not the parent's fault, it's never the kids' fault.
It's hard on adults to be homeless. It frightens them, infuriates them and humiliates them. It's worse for their kids. Shelters are noisy crowded places. It's tough to sleep. Everyone in a shelter is stressed out by their homelessness. Kids in shelters have to navigate the anger and ugliness around them and then go to school and are supposed to get decent grades.
Homeless kids don't want anyone to know where they live. They don't invite friends over to visit. They don't have play dates.
It's a tough life. But it's not the worst thing some of these kids face. Some of them faced worse before they became homeless. In fact the Domestic Violence Counts National Survey identified tens of thousands of kids on a single night in 2009 who became homeless when their parent fled an abuser.
Chloe dreamed -- Chloe's not her real name by the way -- that someone was in her room screaming. Screaming and screaming and screaming, the person just wouldn't stop. Her mom used to scream. Her dad used to beat her until she screamed. Then Chloe and her mom moved a few states over and hid in a domestic violence shelter.
Chloe's mom was one of the few people who thought that the economy tanking was a good thing. She lost the job she'd had for about eight years and qualified for unemployment. She thought with the unemployment benefits to lean on that she could make a break and her cruel husband wouldn't be able to find her.
Every state handles unemployment compensation differently. And Chloe's mom got confused and misfiled a few times. And the little family falls further and further behind while Chloe's mom searches for a new job. The domestic violence shelter they went to was a help, but it was in a large inner city and Chloe's mom needed a place to live that was less scary. They came to us.
In the mean time, Chloe who had lived in an affluent community and gone to a private school left her friends hundreds of miles behind and can't tell them where she's gone. She can't even call to say "hi."
When I first met them, Chloe couldn't talk about her friends without crying. She missed them and she missed the soccer team on which she played. Some of the kids at her new school found out she was homeless and began to tease her. Her grades suffered; so she pretty much hates school now.
Every night before Chloe goes to bed she and her mom do the ABC's of gratitude. They use the letters of the alphabet to name something that they are grateful for each day. It's a trick her mom picked up at the ALANON meetings she's been attending since they left Chloe's dad.
I've known Chloe now for about six months. She smiles a lot more than she did when I first met her and seems better able to transition from affluent victim of domestic violence to a safe and sound homeless child -- at least until she falls asleep.