04/04/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2013

Shelter Life: Loud And Foul

This is a teen-written article from our friends at Represent Magazine, a platform for and by young people in foster care. Represent is published by Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

By Otis Hampton

Watch Otis tell his story in the video above.

I knew I’d have to leave my mom’s house at some point—but I did not expect to live in a homeless shelter. It all seemed to happen so fast: One minute, I’m in the nice, warm house I’ve lived in for 16 years, with food, clothes, and entertainment. The next thing I know, I’m spending my nights in a shelter occupied by the men you see in the subways begging for change.

There were warnings. My relationship with my mom hasn’t been the easiest. She and her late husband adopted me out of foster care when I was 5, and she and I have been battling since I was 12 or 13. She hated when I undermined her authority; her rules made me feel like I had no freedom.

She’s threatened for years to kick me out if I didn’t listen to her or if I didn’t do well in school. She’s told me that if I didn’t change by the time I was 21, I’d have to leave. I turned 21 but didn’t worry too much. I thought she was bluffing because she always forgave me for disrespecting her.

But she wasn’t bluffing this time. Part of me knew that she’d reach her breaking point sooner or later, but a louder part of me refused to contemplate ever living on my own. Those two parts of me you could call my adult-self (preparing to be independent) and my kid-self (in denial, wanting to be taken care of).

But a month ago, she told me to pack my bags and be out the next day. Where would I go? I should have prepared to live on my own, but I hadn’t. I’m in community college, and I get a bit of financial aid for school expenses. But I’ve never held a job, and every place I apply tells me I need experience and a college degree.

Goodbye Comfort Zone

When my mom told me I had to leave, I felt so lost and confused. I also felt I had nowhere to go and nobody to turn to for help. I was terrified of the possibility of being on my own, out of my comfort zone. Even though we fought a lot and I wanted to get away from all the tension, I was comfortable at my mom’s place. Despite our shaky relationship, I still loved her and needed her.

Even before my mom kicked me out, my therapist researched places that take in homeless people. I hadn’t asked her for any help, but she could tell things were getting worse between me and my mom. My therapist believed that at 21, I shouldn’t be living with my mom anymore, and she gave me the address of a shelter.

It was an intake center in Manhattan. I saw a bunch of older men walking out of the building and got confused. I asked the guard, “What is this place?” With a straight face, he told me, “This is a men’s shelter. Entrance is through that gate.”

I asked him, “Were those the fathers of some of the residents here?” He replied, “No, sir, those WERE the residents.” I’d been expecting people closer to my age, not drunken, foul-smelling, crooked-toothed men in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. The fact that I was in the same boat as they were was surreal to me.

Terrified and Alone

Outside it looked like a haunted college, a tall, narrow, red brick building with ivy creeping up the walls. But inside it looked like a prison. Because of the word “shelter,” I was expecting a warm, welcoming place with hot meals, clean bathrooms with showers, and cable TV. My fantasies were just that. I dragged my heavy suitcase through the metal detectors, past the security guards, angry black men, and loud Latino men. I shut it all out the best I could with my iPod.

The guards told me where to go, and I waited for an hour. Then I was called to the window of a booth in the lower level of the building. The lady at the booth took down my name, age, where I lived before I came to the shelter, and medical history.

After that, I had to wait in a room with some of the residents. A couple of them were sharing their experiences of being in different shelters and how they ended up there. Their stories of getting beaten up or sent to jail from the shelter were so terrifying that I vomited and lost control of my bowels. Everybody in the room was disgusted and the custodians had to come clean it up. I was embarrassed but still scared. Because I had to take a shower and change, I got a glimpse of the dorms. I returned to the waiting room a half hour later.

I took the elevator to my room, which was on the 2nd floor, east wing. My room had two “beds”—wooden frames with springs and thin mattresses—a sink, and two lockers. Smoking was prohibited anywhere in the building, but that didn’t stop these men from turning a shelter into a chimney. They smoked in the bathrooms, hallways, and in their rooms. (Thank God my roommate didn’t smoke in our room.)

I missed decent food and drinking water, TV, video games, Facebook, a nice hot shower, and a warm bed. I missed my mom and my little brother Denzel as well as my friends and my girlfriend. Instead of a family member saying goodnight, a guard came around at 10:15 asking if you had signed for your bed. I felt so alone I cried—quietly, so no one would hear.

To Brooklyn

I lost a lot of sleep because of the constant shouting and smoking. I kept to myself throughout the entire stay. I was overwhelmed, and when that happens sometimes I just shut down, rather than doing what I need to do to change my situation. I was waiting for something to happen or someone to help.

After a dreadful four nights, I was told to see someone in an office within the building that provides social services. This shelter had a four-night limit, so you have to renew every four days. They sent me to speak with another caseworker who’d tell me where I’d spend the rest of my nights. She told me, “I’m placing you here…” but I didn’t let her finish.

Click here to read the rest of the story on RepresentMag.org.



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