(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.
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.