The Privilege of Going Home (Part One: Homelessness)

"The Privilege of Going Home" is a three-part story series featuring three powerful voices. Unlike many may assume, not all students can go home for the holidays to see family and friends. Being able to go home is in itself a great privilege that is often taken granted for. In the order that they will be released, the three individual stories will focus on: homelessness, coming out and the travel ban--and how some students cope with these hardships during a time when other venture out to vacation.

 

 

part one: francesca (on homelessness) 

When 22-year-old Francesca returned from studying abroad, she did not expect to be homeless.

 

Just a week before she was to return to San Francisco State University, a friend (whose couch Francesca was going to temporarily sleep on), abruptly changed her mind, leaving Francesca to somehow find a place on her own in less than seven days. While coping with the restless anxiety of having nowhere to stay, Francesca received a notice regarding her financial aid from the University the same week.

 

“My university was testing out a new interface and it told me the incorrect amounts and dates of receiving the financial aid-- which I was going to use for rent and expenses when I came back,” Francesca said. “When I finally called them asking about the money that hadn’t come, they said it was actually an error and that I wouldn’t be receiving anything.”

 

Finding a place to stay in itself seemed impossible, but even if Francesca were to do so, she would need at least $2,000 to pay for the first month’s rent and the deposit-- numbers that were out of the question with only her part-time minimum wage job at a retail store as a source of income. For the next three months, Francesca would stay in her school’s library.

 

“I slept at the campus library, showered at the school's free gym, and spent my days going to work and interviews,” Francesca said. “I was taking part-time online classes during this time, so at night I would use the library to do work and then fall asleep.”

 

                                                                                                        francesca (who is now 25 years old) 

 

However, once the holiday season arrived and students began to evacuate the campus, even the library closed its doors.

 

“The hardest part of being homeless during the holidays for me wasn’t that I couldn't go back home,” Francesca said. “It was that the school's library closed for a few days during the holidays. That was the hardest, because I had to sleep on benches or try to sleep in a 24-hour McDonald's without getting kicked out or harassed.”

 

When it came to food, Francesca used her food stamps to survive on dry foods that would last longer such as bread, bananas and poptarts. And once she realized how quickly San Francisco transit fares racked up, Francesca had to start walking to her interviews and jobs downtown-- an excruciating two hour walk each way.

 

“I had blisters on my feet from walking so much and wearing the same shoes all the time,” Francesca said. “And it’s hard to walk to interviews when your feet are bleeding and you can’t afford band-aids.”

 

While some advantaged students could simply call their parents asking for an electronic deposit when running short on expenses, Francesca could not call her mother back in Pittsburgh-- a single parent who made $5,000 a year. Aware of her mother’s everyday battle with poverty, Francesca would assure her mom that she was spending the night at her friend’s couch as originally planned, and that she couldn’t go home because her retail job was understaffed and needed her help.

 

“I never told my mom,” Francesca said. “I didn’t tell her because I knew the most she’d be able to help with might be at most $20 at a time. Telling her would only make her upset because she’d feel powerless and wouldn’t be able to help at all. It would have made both of us miserable for the holidays.”

 

Homelessness was not a stranger to Francesca who had confronted it twice already-- once when she was a three-year-old toddler living with her mother, and another time when she was 19. As a result, while other students would eagerly discuss their vacation plans, the fundamental meaning of travelling for Francesca was different.

 

“The girls at my high school would brag about the two-month-long trips to Europe their families would take over the summer, and I remember trying to hide the fact that it took me a year to save up for a solo trip to California,” Francesca said.

 

Even though Francesca eventually found a home after three months by obtaining her first credit card to get a cash advance and pay her deposit, she still rarely goes home for the holidays today-- not necessarily because she cannot afford it, but because travelling, especially short-term trips, revive the internal anxiety of her past.

 

“Flying across the country makes me paranoid, thinking that if I missed a few days of work to go on vacation, I wouldn’t have enough money for next month’s rent and then I’d be homeless and alone again,” Francesca said. “Short trips especially can cause panic because they can immediately affect my next paycheck. I’m better most days-- I tell myself to not settle for less, that I don’t deserve to starve and that my goals are attainable and that they matter. But sometimes it hits me again, and the idea that I shouldn’t get anything for free translates into, ‘I don’t deserve anything.’”

 

This very idea of feeling undeserving was deeply rooted in two stereotypes Francesca coped with--the assumption that those experiencing homelessness want everything for free, and the belief that these individuals do not want to fix their situation.

 

When Francesca was walking back and forth to interviews and the biting pain from her raw blisters on her feet became unbearable, she finally took two band-aids from a drugstore without paying-- the greatest relief she could have imagined at the time. But to others who did not know her story, Francesca was often overlooked as ‘another homeless person’ taking the ‘easy way out.’”

 

“I'm still mad at myself for stealing those two little band-aids,” Francesca said. “But people end up without a home for many reasons and make different choices while in a situation with no way out. The people who saw me take those band-aids or sleeping in McDonald’s with all my belongings probably assumed I had no goals or skills. They didn’t know that I speak five languages (two of which I taught myself), or that I was working towards my degrees in International Relations and Linguistics while homeless, that I love traveling and that I love writing more than breathing.”

 

In 2017 alone, roughly 550,000 individuals encountered homelessness-- with unaccompanied youth (those between the ages of 18 and 24) much more likely to be unsheltered, according to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While the percentage of homelessness in the U.S. is declining, the conscious and unconscious social stigma against homelessness is undeniable today.

 

“People just saw me as a homeless person,” Francesca said. “But I’d like to correct that: I was a person without a home. The experience should not create a label for an entire person. You never know what stories and potential are within someone-- no matter what they look like from the outside. No one wants to be treated as inconsequentially as dirt, no one wants to sleep outside in the cold, and no one wants to feel powerless.”