‘We received a knock on the door by a local sheriff. ‘We’re taking all your things.’ The movers packed our belongings into cardboard boxes.’: Homeless student becomes high school, college graduate

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“There are some experiences that serve to shape our direction, manifesting as memories that just remain in the back of the mind as reveries of a previous life. What seem like minor events can transform someone’s entire direction, pushing them to be reborn anew.

At the same time, trauma is violence, forcing individuals into unjust situations and conditions, and not all survive. 2,926 days ago, my family endured an experience that would not only disrupt the lives of my six younger siblings and I, but would also erode our sense of stability and community. On June 25th, 2012 our reality was shattered and our perspectives were forever changed because of our foreclosure day.

602 Dana Court in Wilmington, Massachusetts represented more than just its two-story structure and sun-stained exterior; it exuded winter football games, family meetings, and Halloween parties. I can still smell the marshmallows roasting by our firepit on long summer nights and hear the competitive grunts of basketball games gone awry with our neighborhood friends. In my childhood, the home came to signify community and family. It was not until we received the knock on the door by the local sheriff to take our things that I realized it was impermanent, our preconceptions of reality put in jeopardy by forces outside our control.

Courtesy of Timothy Scalona

The movers packed our belongings into cardboard boxes, entering and exiting the home robotically. Years of financial insecurity and periodic unemployment had led to that very moment. Tears streamed down my mother’s face as she fruitlessly begged the sheriff to retract a decision of which he was the messenger. My younger siblings played basketball in the cul-de-sac, too young to understand the ramifications of an eviction, coping through the distraction.

My father sought to help pack the home as much as possible, serving to aid the movers in organizing our furniture and childhood mementos into the moving truck. As I stood outside the place that defined my existence, I felt my vision blurring, my breath quickening, and my resolve weakening. ‘I have to be strong,’ I thought to myself, looking on at my younger siblings, averting my eyes to hide my watery gaze.

Courtesy of Timothy Scalona

Forced to leave, we lacked the space in our storage unit to bring all our belongings. Photo albums, board games, journals, books, trophies, and more lined the rubble of our home. Childhood memories became no more, lost in a transaction as the artifacts left in our once home were sold to the highest bidder by the mortgage company. The eviction robbed more than just shelter; it stole my innocence and corrupted memories I have been unable to recover.

In the aftermath, my family and I were forced into hotels and shelters to survive. In that first summer, we moved between four hotels, our living conditions slowly degrading. We lived first, in a nearby Sheraton, for just a night. Then, we moved to the Danvers Extended Stay hotel, for a duration of a month. We had two rooms and four beds for nine people. This hotel was the first and last form of stable living we were able to experience, as both rooms had small kitchens, though the highway location fostered isolation.

As occurred with most hotels, we were kicked out because of our noise volume – with nine people enclosed in a small space, there was constant conflict. By the time we were forced to move to the nearby Motel 6 and then Motel Caswell, as the end of summer approached, we were living in one-bedroom hotel rooms with just two beds, a microwave, and a mini-fridge. At night, my stepfather, three brothers, and I shared one bed; my mother and three sisters, the other.

This environment prompted feelings of isolation and shame, juxtaposed with perpetual hunger and the overarching threat of continued homelessness. While I was just about to enter high school, I spent my days and nights searching for more affordable hotels we could live in. Fixated on academic success, and seeking to cope through work, I rewrote my notes for my assigned summer reading over and over until the handwriting was perfect.

I was unable to share my experiences with my friends or peers, due to the limited internet access and transportation that existed at these hotels. Thus, I sought to find temporary peace through distraction – to quiet the slowly numbing normalcy of canned food dinners and gravy sandwiches. I shut down, as I played endless Call of Duty videogames and drowned myself in music and schoolwork to bury the anxiety of our new reality.

Beginning high school, I realized education was my only source of stability. However, I felt an undercurrent of loss in the sense that my peers’ lives moved on, untouched, while my family’s life had been irreparably transformed. I walked the line between two worlds: one of academic refuge, another of housing-insecurity, food-insecurity, and mental illness. I stifled my shame and sought to simply succeed in school, yet unknowingly, I further isolated myself from my peers.

While I was grateful the town of Wilmington paid for transportation to our school district every morning, as mandated in state protections for homeless students, this put my socioeconomic status on display every time we arrived in front of my high school. As I had not shared our story with any of my peers, and instead sought to pretend as if I had simply moved to another home, I ducked my head as we approached the entrance every day. Not only was I struggling to adapt to high school, I felt so alone in my experiences – lacking the language to share them with friends and slowly questioning the worth of my existence.

In October of that year, my sense of self devolved until I refused to leave our hotel bed. I spent days underneath the covers, due to the stress of our environment and, in particular, my schoolwork. I was unable to complete such in our living environment, and thus what began as my own source of comfort, became a never-ending nightmare as a consequence of our 100 square foot prison cell. It was not courage nor will that pushed me out of that stupor; rather, it was my desperate choice to share my experiences with a teacher my freshman year of high school, along with the intervention of mental health professionals, that saved my life.

By the time I was a junior in high school, my father was laid off from his job and we could no longer afford the hotels we were paying for. As a result, our last option was to seek state emergency shelter through the Department of Transitional Assistance Emergency Assistance program. Faced with the potential of sleeping in our truck, we ventured to the agency office, missing school, and sat in the lobby for a few hours until we were able to meet with a representative.

This experience was destabilizing and retraumatizing, for this representative had the power to improve or worsen our lives. We had no other choices and we were at their mercy. In the end, the representative gave us a decision that would even then drastically alter our forced experience; due to the limited supply of shelter in the state, the agency broke the law and placed us in a two-bedroom hotel nearly two hours away – in the city of Holyoke.

This further entrenched our family in cyclical poverty, as we were then stranded from our support networks. In order to stay in our school district, my stepfather was forced to drive my siblings and me to school every day; we left at five in the morning and did not return until around midnight due to the distance. Isolated and weak, I found it difficult to find the energy to wake up nor the time to complete my homework. However, in pursuit of higher education, I continued to fight in the hope that one day, life would be different.

Through the support of advocacy groups, my family was able to transfer to a local hotel in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. It was here that I began my search for colleges and aimed for high academic excellence. I took AP courses, ran track after school, and worked my first job at Staples a few days a week. I found safety and stability, despite our living environment. Under the surface of this new hotel, there existed insidious classism I did not then have the language to describe. In the complex, the hotel management placed the homeless families in a two-story wing while the paying guests were placed within a five-story separate tower.

Reflecting this separation, paying guests and homeless families were made to eat breakfast in separate breakfast rooms of the hotel establishment. This served to segregate homeless families from visiting guests, that which we could not resist for fear of removal or reprisal. To management, the mere presence of homeless families put in jeopardy the image of the hotel, and for this reason, managers regularly followed me around and policed where I was doing work. In one truly heartbreaking move, I was kicked off the hotel lobby computer – that visiting guests were allotted to use – while trying to print out documentation for my college applications. It was not anything we did directly that warranted this behavior, it was our mere status that caused us to be criminalized, policed, and implicitly discriminated against – for a situation that was out of our control.

Despite these initial barriers, I was able to graduate high school and then attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst, receiving degrees in both Political Science and Policy, Journalism, & Storytelling. I involved myself in Student Government, policy advocacy organizations, my school newspaper, and even a fraternity. I initially dreamt of college for the mere opportunity to live in housing, but in the process, I found community and understanding. As a survivor and child of poverty, I had finally found a home.

Courtesy of Timothy Scalona
Courtesy of Timothy Scalona

However, I am now one of the first and only one of my family members to have escaped such a situation, as my siblings and parents still live in overcrowded and poor conditions. When I talk about subjects such as housing access and educational accessibility – it is more than a political debate. It is my life and my lived experience. I am fighting for my community’s right to exist while struggling with the guilt of living in privilege as a college student while my family remains in destitution and oppression.

Courtesy of Timothy Scalona
Courtesy of Timothy Scalona

In the American mythos of false-meritocracy, I recognize there are only survivors of poverty, not winners or losers. My story is not the rule, but an exception and a consequence of systemic inequality. The memories of injustice and constant instability push me forward into advocacy, yet reveal themselves in my personal relationships and insecurities. I yearn for a better future, one where no child goes hungry nor lacks shelter and opportunity. As I struggle with nightmares and pained flashbacks of an experience that I have not mentally left, I speak my truth to fight for justice in a society that sometimes dissuades vulnerability.”

Courtesy of Timothy Scalona

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Timothy Scalona of Amherst, Massachusetts. You can follow his journey on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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