Family shelters are difficult places to live no matter your age, but present particular challenges for teenagers. Teens in shelters are often coping with a lack of privacy, social stigma, and feelings of shame. Shelter life puts limitations on simple activities, like inviting a friend over after school. The HRC’s Rose Clervil recently sat down with three teens to learn more about their lives. Sandra* is a 14-year old female, Robert* is a 16-year old male, and Nadia* is a 15-year old female. All three live with their mothers in family shelters.
Q: What is it like for you to live in a shelter?
Sandra: I have been very stressed out. I cannot have friends over to visit due to shelter rules.
Robert: It’s hard because I have to live in a house with seven different families with young children. Also, I had to move to another state and go to another school. It is very stressful to live in a community setting.
Nadia: It has not been easy. I could not go out with my friend because of the shelter’s curfew and other rules.
Q: How long have you been living in a shelter?
Sandra: For over two years now! I am tired of it. I need a place to call home. I need my own room. I am tired of sharing room with my mom.
Robert: I have been living at the shelter for 10 months. It has been a long journey far away from my permanent home. I moved a few times with my mom for safety reasons. Now, we are in a shelter sharing common spaces with other families.
Nadia: I have been living at the shelter for almost 2 years. It has been tiring because my mother has 4 children. It has been an uneasy experience for me. I left my best friend behind in another state when we had to flee our home for safety reasons.
Q: What is your experience like as a teen living in a family shelter?
Sandra: My experience living in shelter as teenager has been sad and depressing because we have to live with other people and share common spaces. We have to share everything, with people we don’t even know.
Robert: It has been sad and depressing because we have to live with other people and share common spaces and everything in the house.
Nadia: It has been very sad for my mom and me. It’s embarrassing; I cannot tell my friends where I live.
Q: Are all of your needs met?
Sandra: No. I don’t have my own room and most activities are geared toward the younger kids.
Robert: Yes, they [shelter staff] really try to help me with school. They have been trying to help me work on my grades. I have also been going to a type of counseling for kids who had alcoholic parents.
Nadia: I was able to attend school, but there was not anything for me to do at the shelter. They do not have any programs for kids my age.
Q: Do you talk about where you live at school?
Sandra: In the beginning, when school started, I didn’t share anything with other students. I did not know how they were going to react towards me. Now, I am so used to being in shelters that I can talk to others about where I live and why I am there.
Robert: I only talk to close friends who I feel can understand what I am going through as a teenager. They usually ask what it feels like to live in a shelter. I will tell them it is a crowded place to live and you have to live with other people you don’t even know.
Nadia: I only talk to the people I can trust. I only tell people who I feel can understand that we were in a shelter not because my mother was lazy, but because we had to leave for safety reason.
Q: What do you wish the shelter would do differently?
Sandra: I wish that I could have my own room and not have to live in the same room with my mom. I wish we did not have to share spaces with other families. I wish we could have our own apartment. That’s what I want to be different for us.
Robert: I feel the staff has been doing their best to help my mom and me. I just wish that I did not have to share a room with my mother. Maybe at some point the shelter could think about having separate rooms for teenagers. It is annoying to share room with your parent.
Nadia: I feel that the shelter could have a range of services and programs available for kids like me who moved to a new neighborhood and are encountering people from different cultures and with different values. In other words, I wish I had more help to adjust to a new environment.
*Not their real names. All names have been changed.
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