“Here Now,” by River Gallery School instructor Ben Marder (penwave. com). Oil on canvas board, 20 in. × 16 in.
Special Focus

‘It just makes you grow up too fast’

She’s a high school senior. And she’s living in a tent with a boyfriend, a cat, and three chickens.

BRATTLEBORO-The girl in this conversation is homeless. She turned 18 years old in November. She just graduated from Brattleboro Union High School with the rest of the class of 2024.

"Shane" - she asked that we not use her real name - came to The Commons through Mack Mackin, associate director of youth programs at Interaction: Youth Services and Restorative Justice, who called her "a remarkable human."

Shane talked to us on June 15 on a cell phone from the parking lot at Wendy's on Putney Road, where her boyfriend works 12 hours a day.

Joyce Marcel: We really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

Shane: Use Shane for my name when you write the story, will you?

I can't have my parents know.

J.M.: So what's the deal with your parents?

S: My mom got in a relationship with my stepdad. And my stepdad and I had a huge fight and he kicked me out and told me not to return.

J.M.: Ouch.

S: At 17 years old, I was kicked out.

J.M.: I'm so sorry to hear that. So what happened next?

S: I left home. For, I think it was, like, about a month or three months, I was sleeping in the car.

J.M.: So did you first try to go to a friend's house? Was there someplace before the car?

S: Just got in the car.

J.M.: Are your parents in Windham County?

S: They're in Brattleboro.

J.M.: Do you want to tell me what the fight was about, or is it none of my business?

S: Chores. It was about chores. I was basically a live-in nanny for my six other siblings.

J.M.: Six children?

S: My mother has seven children. My older brother is autistic. And my younger ones are not able to cook and clean and do all the housework that they're supposed to. So I took the responsibility as being a third-parent-type-thing.

So I was cooking, cleaning, taking care of the animals, making sure everybody had what they needed, getting them dressed for school, giving them showers, everything like that.

J.M.: And then?

S: And then I finally had enough courage to stand up for myself.

I tried to speak to my mom about the issue and my stepdad got in the way, and we had quite a number of fights before I left. And when I finally left, I never returned.

J.M.: Did your friends offer to help?

S: When I first left home. I was too stuck up - I didn't want help. I didn't want anything. And I just wanted to be by myself and have free time.

But when I finally realized I needed the help, I went and got it. And I do have a lot of friends. But on another note, they're still in high school. Personally, I'd rather not have them helping. I'd rather try to figure it out on my own, because sooner or later they're going to need what they tried to help me with.

J.M.: Do you still see your mom?

S: Minimum contact, because anytime I see my mother, my stepdad is always there. And he says what goes, and there's no way I can change that.

J.M.: OK, so you leave home and you're living in a car. What happens next?

S: I lived in the car for about three months. Then I got into the Economic Services [Division of the Vermont Department of Children and Families], which put me in hotels for a few weeks.

Then we went back to the car and then back to hotels. And it's been an off-and-on with hotels and cars and tents.

It's like camping offseason.

J.M.: And you are going to school while this is going on?

S: I am, and it was probably the most struggle I've had in my entire life.

J.M.: And have you graduated BUHS?

S: I am graduating this coming week.

J.M.: Congratulations! So what are you doing next?

S: I do have a partner, and we are planning on saving enough to try to see if we can find a place in Rhode Island or in Massachusetts and live there.

He was kicked out as well from his aunt's house, but it's a whole different scenario there.

J.M.: Are you working now?

S: I have a part-time job until my graduation, and then I'm gonna see if I can find another one.

J.M.: And your partner?

S: He has two jobs, going on three.

J.M.: And is he at the high school too?

S: No, he just moved here about a year ago, actually.

J.M.: How did you meet?

S: We were working in the same job.

J.M.: So what can you tell me about your experience? I don't know enough to ask the right questions here.

S: All I can say is if you do find yourself in this situation, make sure you have the right resources. Because it's a struggle. And it's more of a struggle if you don't have any resources.

J.M.: What are the right resources?

S: Finding people you can trust. Explaining to them what's happening, so if you're short on food, they can find you alternative places to find good food, and foods that can help you in the long run.

About hotels and stuff, I would see if you could find somebody to help you navigate through that. Like Mack Mackin at Youth Services. That is probably one of the best resources that I found, because they helped me get health care. They helped me get hotels. They've helped me get sleeping bags.

It's hard. And it's just been a big help.

J.M.: Do you feel more independent because of this experience?

S: I feel like I grew up way too fast. Some 18-year-olds are out partying and having fun. And others, like me and some of the other people in my position that I've met, are trying to work their butts off to try to figure out how to get food into their system. How to make sure everyone's safe and warm.

It just makes you grow up too fast.

J.M.: Tell me something about the motels. A common perception is that places like the Quality Inn have turned into drug houses.

S: It's not true. At the Quality Inn, the people that check you in are the sweetest people I've ever met.

Some of the people that you meet along the way are very nice, but others are rude and scream. They do certain drugs. Those ambulances and cops show up every freaking two to three days.

It could use some help, but at least it's a roof over your head, a fridge and microwave to make some warm foods when you're cold.

There were, I would say, like six hotels that we've been to. Three of those were in Brattleboro, I believe. At the Covered Bridge, next to Wendy's on Putney Road, their rooms were extremely nice and really vibrant. We had to be in Manchester for a few months, too, because they didn't have enough rooms in Brattleboro. So we were making long rides from Manchester to Brattleboro for school and work and everything. And it's rough. It's rough.

J.M.: Did you feel that your experience separated you out from the general population at the high school?

S: It was kind of like they were pointing at me or staring at me the entire time.

J.M.: Why?

S: Because there's not many places to take showers and clean up and dress nice. In winter, there's no place to put your things, so you're bundled up like you're in the Antarctic and everything. You look like you're a marshmallow.

J.M.: Because you're sleeping outdoors in the winter?

S: We were, actually, yes, in our car. When there's not enough gas, you have to keep the car off. So you're freezing in your clothes and you can't technically stay warm. So we bundled up. We used tons of blankets and we still weren't warm and then you get to go to school. We were so cold.

J.M.: Where do you park your car when you're sleeping?

S: We either park it at the [Dummerston] covered bridge on Route 30, or in Wendy's parking lot.

J.M.: Isn't there a program where you can get showers and sports equipment and stuff from the school district? A woman named Tricia Hill runs that program.

S: Tricia helps me with types of food. She also helps us with gas and laundry cards. But not showers. Not having a shower is generally OK because we have washcloths. If we could find a bathroom, like today's bathroom in the baseball park on Route 30 which has running water, we could wash ourselves.

J.M.: What about your hair?

S: I cut it. It used to be way longer, but I cut it to shoulder length. So if my hair got really gross, I would take a certain spray and spray it down with shampoo or conditioner and then brush it out.

J.M.: What about makeup and stuff like that?

S: I used to wear that stuff, but there's not enough resources to be able to have the luxuries like makeup and everything like that.

J.M.: So what are your plans for the future? Do you know what you want to do with your life? Besides get out of sleeping in cars?

S: I want to get everything to the point where I'm steady and stable. Be able to start my own business.

J.M.: What kind of business?

S: Jewelry. I make Native American beadwork and everything like that.

J.M.: So how do you feel about this life? It doesn't sound like you're mad, or angry or sad. You sound pretty normal to me.

S: There's no reason to be mad, angry, or sad. Even if you're in a lower position, just find happiness where you are and with what you've got.

There's some people that feel frustrated because they can't get somewhere. But on another note, there are people like me that see beauty in where they are.

At least I got this far. Far enough to be able to have some freedom and to make choices that adults should be making.

J.M.: Do you have any advice for people in your situation? What about jobs?

S: If you don't like the job you're at, even if you don't have the money to quit, see if you can find another job to replace it before you leave.

If you see that you want to take a walk in a park to see the beautiful trees, then do it.

Make sure you have the time in the day to have the fun you want and still maintain what you've got at the moment.

You'll make it. You'll get to the top where you want to be, and you'll have the life you want.

There's no reason to be mad about it. There is a reason to be sad that you don't have what you had before. But you will get there on your own, or with a little bit of help or a push.

J.M.: How did you find Mack and Youth Services?

S: I was already working with Mack to find an opportunity when I was still living at home. I actually tried to contact Youth Services through my school to see if there was any way for me to leave home and still have an apartment and everything before I actually left.

But the whole situation came up and I left without an apartment or anything with me.

I was a senior at BUHS. I went to three days a week, to be able to still maintain the job I had. And on top of that, get the doctor's appointments and schooling done.

J.M.: What kind of job do you have?

S: I am a part-time associate at a store. I run around and grab groceries for people so when they get a chance, they can pick them up.

J.M.: And what about your brothers and sisters? The ones you were taking care of. Are you in touch with them?

S: Actually, no. My mom and my stepdad made them not talk to me. So they cut contact for me and my siblings. I can't talk to them. I can't see them. I can't interact with them. My mom doesn't want me anywhere near them.

I have one brother in the high school. I think he's about 16. He doesn't like where he's at either, with my mother and stepfather.

And I actually told him that there's nothing to worry about. If he would like to leave, we could figure out job placements and things that he could do to maintain the life he has, and still have the opportunity to be independent and grown up.

J.M.: What did he say?

S: He said, 'I don't want to leave my goldfish behind.' He has three pet fish. He doesn't want to leave them at home.

J.M.: Yes, it'd be pretty hard to be homeless with three goldfish.

S: Yeah. It would. But I'm homeless with a cat and three chickens.

J.M.: Say what?

S: I've got a cat. Her name is Carrie. She's very, very pretty and lively. And I have three chickens. One is named Alice. She's older. Then I have a chicken named Ava. She's the middle child. And I have a chicken named Leaf, like the leaves on the trees. She's the youngest.

And they love where they're at. They have the most freedom. They can run. They can be free in the campsite. They have everything they could want, plus toys and everything, which also was helped by certain places.

J.M.: What did you mean by that?

S: So we went through a program for our animals, so they would still have the food, the water, and everything. We also bought some by ourselves, which is pretty cheap at the dollar store.

And they're loved. They have most freedoms. They can run outdoors, They can play with anything they would like, and they very much love each other. The cat and the chickens love each other.

J.M.: Did you have the chickens when you were living in the car?

S: No, we were actually in the Quality Inn at the time. They were very trained. They're like dogs. They went to the bathroom in a box, and they ran around the hotel floors and didn't make a big mess.

And if they did spill their food a little bit, we would vacuum it up because we bought a vacuum to be able to do that.

J.M.: That was thoughtful of you.

S: Well, I don't like people coming into my room and trying to clean it and then picking and touching my stuff. So I cleaned my own rooms.

J.M.: They actually clean the rooms at the Quality Inn?

S: They did, actually. They had a room service opportunity. But I didn't like people in my room. So I would clean the room before I left. I picked up all our stuff. Our trash was thrown away by ourselves. And we made sure to clean the walls, the floors, the sinks, the bathtub - everything - before we left.

We did it in all the hotels that we were at. Even if they wanted to go in and redo the whole thing, at least it was already cleaned before they walked in there.

J.M.: Why chickens?

S: I was pregnant, and [I miscarried at three months]. And I needed something to keep my mind occupied while I was recovering.

J.M.: I'm sorry to hear that. How old were you then?

S: I was 18. I was about three months into my being 18 when I found out I was pregnant. The miscarriage was extremely painful and very nerve-wracking. When you have somebody sleeping in your bed and they wake up

J.M.: So you're going to graduate in a week, and then you're taking off?

S: We're gonna stay here in Brattleboro for a while until we can get enough money to take off.

J.M.: How much is enough money?

S: We need a lot. That's why he's gonna have three jobs and I'm gonna have two. The amount of money we're gonna need for gas and hotels and everything is going to be impossible.

But if we work hard enough, we can get there.

Joyce Marcel is a regular reporter and columnist for The Commons, where she regularly covers housing, homelessness, and economic development issues. She and reporter Ellen Pratt recently won a second prize in the 2023 New England Newspaper and Press Association's Better Newspaper Contest for their ongoing coverage of these issues.

This Special Focus item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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