Kevin Was Homeless

Kevin, 17, was homeless. Now, he's giving back. 

Tim Soter Photography

Each year, 1.6 million U.S. kids experience at least temporary homelessness. Kevin, 17, was one of them.

By Kevin Lui, as told to Jane Bianchi

In elementary school, I didn’t realize how good I had it. I was living with my mom, dad, and brother, Ka-ren, who is about a year younger than I am, in a rented apartment in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. The apartment was above my parents’ store, which had groceries and an arcade for kids.

Ka-ren and I weren’t allowed to eat the candy or play the games in the store (my parents are strict!), but we did work there and learn how to be cashiers, making change for customers. At the time, I never thought of myself as “happy” or “comfortable”—it was just the way life was.

Everything changed just before I started the sixth grade. Our landlord told us to gather our belongings one day, then he kicked us out without any notice. We lost our business and our home all at once. Stranded and broke, my family had no choice but to move to the Life Family Shelter, a nearby homeless shelter in lower Manhattan.

I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but after a few weeks, it finally sank in: I was homeless. It was humiliating and humbling, because I never thought that something like that would happen to me. I wondered if people would look at me differently—and respect me less.

My family had a private room to sleep in at the shelter, which housed 90 families, but it was a quarter of the size of our old living space and had bunk beds, so we always felt crowded.

We also had to share a bathroom with everyone else on our floor. That was gross, because a lot of the immature kids thought it was funny to wipe their poop all over the walls—seriously! Or they’d turn the lights off while you were trying to take a shower. I can still hear them laughing in my head—that would annoy me so much.

Sheltered Life

I felt so embarrassed that I lived at a shelter that I didn’t tell anyone at school. You know how kids are in middle school—I didn’t want anyone talking trash about me. Sometimes kids would ask, “Where do you live?” and instead of telling them, I would intentionally be vague and say the general neighborhood. Other times I would flat-out lie. I felt like I could never truly be myself and open up to friends, because I always carried around this secret. It was a lonely time.

The only good part about living in the shelter was that I got to go to an after-school program that was run by the Coalition for the Homeless. It was a quiet place where I could do my homework or play music, dance, or do arts and crafts. It was an escape from all the craziness of being in a hot, cramped shelter with a lot of people I didn’t know.

Moving On Up

Just before I started high school—after three long years—my parents finally found affordable housing. When I found out we were moving, I was so relieved and excited that I practically jumped up and down. We have two bedrooms now, one bathroom that we don’t have to share with strangers, and our own kitchen, so we can cook our own food. It’s so much cleaner than the shelter, and it’s so nice to have privacy again. It’s funny—you don’t realize how much you appreciate stuff until you’re forced to live without it. Now everything feels luxurious!

Giving Back

When I turned 17 this past April, I started feeling different about my experience being homeless. For the first time, I didn’t feel ashamed. I don’t know what changed, exactly—maybe I just stopped caring about what other people think of me, or maybe I grew up. But I decided that it was time to tell a friend, so I told my friend Jason. I thought, “If he turns his back on me, then he isn’t a true friend.” But he was awesome about it. He was shocked, of course, because I had kept it a secret from him for so long. But he was supportive and didn’t treat me any differently because of it. The whole conversation went so well that I began telling even more friends.

I also started volunteering at the after-school program I went to, because I want to help other kids who are going through the same thing as I did. Sometimes I’ll help them with their homework or play basketball with them. It makes me feel good inside.

I tell them how I’d like to either go to college someday or try to become an actor. I hope they look at me and see how well I’m doing now and think: I can do that too.

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