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The ‘dirty secret’ of being a homeless child

‘I’m really proud of how far I’ve come . . . but I’m always scared of losing it.’

Winter Walk participants last February. The fundraiser, which raises awareness about homelessness in Boston, went remote this year and also spawned a podcast.
Winter Walk participants last February. The fundraiser, which raises awareness about homelessness in Boston, went remote this year and also spawned a podcast.Winter Walk Boston/Chris M. Shane

Boston ranks third among American cities for its number of homeless families. Of them, 84 percent are single mothers with young children. Kelly, 34, spent her childhood in and out of homelessness and housing insecurity. “I was so ashamed,” she recalls. “Homelessness was like a dirty secret. My mom was like, you never, ever tell anyone any of this.” Kelly, who has asked that we use only her first name to protect her privacy, says she became adept at hiding her reality from those closest to her. “I used to get angry and think I can’t believe my teachers or my friends aren’t noticing, that no one’s saying anything. But looking back, I see that I kept that secret. I did everything I could to look and to play the part of someone who had food every night and soap in the bathroom.”

Today, Kelly has her own apartment and does advocacy work for affordable housing. “I have a steady job. I have a great support system. And I’m still scared to lose it all. . . . It’s always in the back of my head that it could just be gone in a second,” she says.

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This is Kelly’s story, as told to Ari Barbanell, executive director of Winter Walk, a Boston-based nonprofit that seeks to end homelessness in the city. Because the pandemic curtailed the organization’s plan to host its fifth annual fundraising walk this month, Barbanell and her team have produced a podcast, Don’t Walk By, that tells the stories of homeless, formerly homeless, and housing-insecure people living in Boston. Kelly’s story, edited and condensed for clarity here, was originally featured in episode 3.

Kelly’s story

I was 5. I don’t know all the details — when you’re a kid, your parents don’t tell you everything — but we were evicted from our apartment in Jamaica Plain. My mom and my dad were not together, but we all moved in with my father’s mother. Both of my parents struggle with addiction and mental health issues, so that didn’t make the situation great. My mom, little brother, and I lived out of trash bags on a fold-up couch in my grandmother’s dining room. I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody what was happening. And I didn’t know that I was homeless. My mom threw the word around a lot and said that we were homeless, but I thought, well, there’s a roof over my head and my family is here.

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More than anything else from that time, I remember that the things that I loved — my books, my toys, everything — were in storage. Eventually, we lost the storage unit, so I never saw those things again.

When I was in kindergarten, my mom secured housing in Brookline. It was a really small apartment, with me, my mom, and my brother, who was sick and having seizures a lot. My dad would be around sometimes. My mom did maintenance, and I think that helped us keep [the apartment], though we were only there for about a year. I was not allowed to talk about the experience I’d had at my grandmother’s, and the threat of being homeless again was always looming. It never felt like home, because it was always at the risk of being lost.

We finally got some permanent housing in West Roxbury, where my mom was again the maintenance person. But even then, the threat of losing the housing was always very palpable and present. And we didn’t have a lot to eat. My mom was really proud, so she didn’t really like taking any handouts, even food stamps. So even though we were eligible, she didn’t use [that benefit] for long. We also didn’t have a lot [of money] to use for toiletries, and it went on that way, my whole time staying with my mom. We would go to church, and I think they knew — they would send us food pantry stuff for Thanksgiving and toys on Christmas.

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My mom was abusive the whole time I was growing up. It really started peaking when I was 17 or 18, so I would couch surf for a couple of days at a time and live out of a bag. I slept in a car a couple of times. I slept on a bench a couple of times. I didn’t realize I was homeless then, either.

As a teenager, I was a big activist in the LGBTQ+ community. I still am. I worked with Boston Pride on a suicide prevention event. Queer youth have higher rates of homelessness and suicide attempts. I’m queer, and I really found a community doing that [work]. There were a lot of us that had housing instability for different reasons. Sometimes we all stayed in the same house together.

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I have my GED. I don’t have a college degree, because I had to work, I had to make money, and I didn’t have the money to get the education. And I didn’t have the time because I had to make money. But I’m really proud of how far I’ve come. I have my own place now, but I’m always scared of losing it. I’m scared of my bank account going empty, or if I lose my job, or if [my building] catches on fire. It’s just an anxiety that I’ve carried with me for my entire life, because I think it’s been my entire life. It’s always there.

Because I’m scared I’ll lose it all, I gather things. I collect things — like canned food. I always wear a backpack and have everything I could possibly need in that bag because it’s just ingrained in me to be prepared. If you ever see me out and you need something, it’s probably in my backpack.

I’m a worrier, but especially right now, with the pandemic and everything that’s going on, I really try my hardest to experience joy at least once a day.