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Somewhere to Call Home
May 10, 2019
There are close to 20,068 people who call the streets of Massachusetts their home, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, each one with an uncertain future.
Though the median household income in Brookline is more than the average median income of the United States, according to a Data USA report, this is not the story for everyone. Of the close to 59,000 people in Brookline today, 13.2 percent live at or below the federal poverty level, according to a 2012 American Community Survey, some without a place to stay.
“Homelessness affects many individuals and families and it does not matter the area, location or background,” Brookline Center members, Jennifer Yonda, Megan Smith and Lolita Gonsalves-Alston, said in an email. “For some people, they have a more stable living situation and might be couch-surfing with friends or family; but for others it might be very stressful day-to-day survival: figuring out where to stay, where to find food, how to get transportation to school or work, taking things day by day. A life with so much uncertainty and instability can be damaging in building healthy lifestyle habits, relationships, self-esteem and psychological emotional safety.”
In her junior year, alumna ‘17 Haley Bayne and her mother had to leave their apartment, the only place they had known as home and during the middle of winter, sleep on the floor of another apartment with only a sleeping bag and some blankets.
Two sisters, who will be known by their initials, S.E. and O.E., and their mother G.E., were left homeless after being evicted from their apartment during their sophomore and sixth grade years, according to a complaint filed by G.E. They were living in their car, an art studio and gallery and sometimes in hotels, following their eviction.
English teacher Kevin Wang was living out of his car during some of his junior and senior years in college, and afterward couch-surfing with friends.
They are among the approximately 3 percent of teens and 10 percent of young adults every year who experience homelessness, according to a University of Chicago study, each of them with their own unique story.
Life Without A House
During the 2016 to 2017 school year, there were a reported 1,355,821 homeless students in public school according to the National Center for Homeless Education, 20,872 of them in Massachusetts.
When construction started in their apartment, it became too much for Bayne’s asthma and her doctor told her and her mother that they could not stay there.
“It was very unexpected, it was a sudden thing and it was really hard to prepare for it. I didn’t know where we would be staying because we were looking for other places and nothing was working out,” Bayne said. “There weren’t a lot of people to really fall back on, so it was tough. My home is just me and my mom, and we didn’t have a close-knit family network.”
After leaving her apartment, Bayne ended up staying with her grandmother for a while. It was four people, including a full-time care aid, to a one bedroom apartment. Bayne slept in a makeshift bedroom she shared with two other people.
“As a student, it was pretty challenging,” Bayne said. “I had my homework that I needed to do, I had my extracurriculars, so I was home late and then I had to eat and do all of my things. I just really liked to keep myself busy it was hard to ignore the fact that my setting had changed when it was such a blatant change.”
Social worker Paul Epstein said that along with not having a place to stay, after becoming homeless, people must think about storing their belongings. Social workers can sometimes help with this extra challenge since storage can be expensive.
“We’ve even at times used very creative solutions like storing a family’s possessions in a basement at the Teen Center or other places to help them not lose everything they own,” Epstein said.
After they became homeless, S.E. and O.E. were terminated from Brookline Public Schools and the two sisters, once “A” students, were failing their classes and did not eventually graduate from a Brookline Public School, according to the complaint.
Without saying goodbye to any of their friends, they had to leave Brookline, separated from their mother, as they went back to Israel to live with their father.
“There are so many different paths to becoming homeless or to not having stable housing. It’s tremendously difficult and students might have a whole complex web of emotions about being in that situation,” Epstein said. “Though it’s no fault of their own, they might feel some guilt or shame or embarrassment.”
Epstein has seen a trend of upperclassmen or recent alumni couch-surfing.
“It’s late adolescents — that’s a time in a kid’s life that if there’s a lack of family stability and support, things can happen really fast to create a situation where there’s homelessness,” Epstein said.
Wang became homeless during college, after a falling out with his parents.
“I ran out of money and all I had was the stuff for school, clothes and a car,” Wang said. “I would end up spending some nights in some odd places.”
To this day, Wang’s parents do not know that he was once homeless. He would sleep in his car in a garage by the campus library, shower in the college gym and go into dorms to do his laundry. To pass the time, he would read books.
“It was mostly about keeping up appearances and making sure that no one knew that this was something that I was doing. I was trying to hide it from as many people as possible,” Wang said. “The external front that I was putting out to all of the people that I was around, doing the effort to make sure that I didn’t appear a certain way — that I didn’t look like someone who was living out of his car or a person who didn’t have a place to live.”
The Search for Another Place
For some, like Wang, homelessness is behind them.
“I don’t think about it too often because of where I am what I’m doing,” Wang said. “But for a while, I didn’t have a place to live. I wouldn’t know where to go. It was just me, a car and some stuff.”
But for others, they are still living through it.
“This is not a distant issue that only affects people that you never would cross paths with,” Epstein said. “It’s a 100 percent guarantee that you have been in a classroom or walked the halls this year with students who have been homeless.”
Today, Bayne is a pre-med student at Northeastern University, Wang is an English teacher and G.E. filed a lawsuit against Brookline Public Schools under the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, which says that students without a home are still allowed to go to their same school and that the town must give transportation.
From his experience without a home, Wang knows that someone’s life could be more complicated than it may seem on the outside.
“You can look at someone and not know what’s happening when they’re not in your line of sight,” Wang said. “A lot of people in Brookline don’t realize that there is a socioeconomic gap. Just because someone presents a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean you understand their experience or where they’re coming from. Not everyone is the sort of Brookline stereotype.”
Only some of Bayne’s friends knew about her home life then, but she believes that almost everyone has something they keep behind closed doors.
“We live in Brookline. Most people that we go to school with are pretty privileged and you kind of have this image that everyone comes from a good family and has no issues, but everyone has their issues,” Bayne said. “Maybe you put up a facade of perfection or you want to seem like you have nothing going on in your life, but deep down inside something’s going on for everyone and some of those things are bigger than others.”
Contributing reporting by Sofia Reynoso