The first time Breanna found herself homeless, she’d left her mom’s house when she was 12 because her stepdad didn’t like her and her mom never took her side in fights. That had left her sharing a room in a Motel 6 with her father and sick grandmother near her high school in Jefferson County, Colorado. A short, slim, dark-haired Latina, she’d grown up in the area, and most of her family was there; it’s where she felt at home. In the motel, though, her dad, who was a drug addict, would occasionally beat her. “My Grandma would tell him I deserved it,” Breanna says. “I never understood why I deserved it.”
Sometimes her father kept Breanna out of school because she had bruises on her arms and he didn’t want the abuse reported to authorities; sometimes Breanna missed school because she was too tired to wake up. When she finally wanted to leave for good, her father said he wouldn’t let her go unless she peed in a cup for him so he could pass a drug test; she agreed, and said it was the last thing she’d ever do for him.
Breanna went to her aunt and cousin’s house, where she lived in a food closet with a dirt floor and no door. It was fine as long as she got along with her aunt and cousin, which was about two months. Her cousin was a teenager, about the same age. “We talked about sex,” Breanna says. “She was having sex, I wasn’t. So she was going out a lot and she got pregnant, and then she didn’t want to admit she was pregnant, so we kind of drifted apart. I don’t know what it was with girls from my school, but I guess a lot of us handled our rough times through boys.”
The birth of her cousin’s daughter made things worse. Breanna grabbed her bags and called a friend. School started again. She stayed there for a few weeks, which was difficult because the sisters shared only one room—their sense of charity waned when they started fighting with Breanna over a boy one of the sisters liked, who was talking to Breanna.
Breanna returned to her dad in the motel. She had hoped to be free of him, but she was having trouble making it on her own. But during her two-week stay, he started to take money from her because she was the only one who had any—Breanna was working as a waitress at Denny’s. She tried to swing a hotel room on her own for a month but, at $35 a night, it was too expensive for her small salary. She finally went to stay with her other grandmother and grandfather, though they lived more than two miles from her school. She woke up at 4:30 to catch the bus, if she made it to school at all. She eventually went to sleep on another friend’s couch. At some point, somewhere between her aunt’s house and her grandparents’ house, Breanna admitted to a counselor that she was homeless and struggling, and the counselor connected her with one of the homeless liaisons who works to keep homeless students in school. Her school and counselor helped her apply for a college scholarship for students who had experienced homelessness or foster care. The liaison got her bus passes and gas money and, when she was accepted to the University of Denver, helped her outfit her dorm room.*
I met Breanna when I was in Jefferson County, Colorado, reporting on families who were living in a Ramada Inn. (She was already in college and had left her life of living in hotels, but I wanted to meet someone who had made it out. I have changed Breanna’s name. She is only 20 and has reached a point in her life where she feels like she can leave her sad story behind.) I chose to report in Denver’s western suburban county because, like suburbs nationwide, the county had seen its poverty rate increase by more than half, from 5.2 percent in the 2000 census to 8.5 percent in the 2010 census. At the height of the housing crisis, the Denver metro area also had a high foreclosure rate—the state as a whole was eighth in the nation in 2011, the year Breanna graduated high school—and also had the lowest rental vacancy rate in a decade. That led to a dramatic increase in homelessness. The number of homeless students in the Jefferson County school district rose from 59 ten years ago to 2,812 this school year.
In the same time period, the number of young people who are homeless and living without their families has also doubled. Part of the reason is about what’s practical: Some shelters that serve families often don’t allow teenage boys to stay with younger children, but there are no specific numbers on how many teenagers are living on the streets for this reason. Another part reveals the calculus of survival: Families who have to worry about young children reckon that their 15- or 16-year-old son or daughter has a good chance of surviving on his or her own.
Another reason for the high number of what the school system labels “unaccompanied youth” is that, in times of economic distress, family problems at home can lead to a higher number of runaways. If an abusive parent loses his or her job, then he or she is home more often and has more opportunities for abuse. The stress of moving from an apartment or house to a hotel can exacerbate tensions kept in abeyance. I talked to several other teenagers who were homeless, or individuals who had been homeless as teenagers; the vast majority had experienced some type of abuse.
There are a few places in Jefferson County to help homeless families and teenagers: In addition to the Action Center, which supplies shelter, food, and other financial support for families and individuals in the deepest distress, there’s an organization called Family Tree that runs a youth-only shelter, a domestic-violence victims’s shelter, and other services. It has 20 beds for teenagers. I talked to one runaway teen who said his time in the youth shelter helped him realize how good his own life was; so many had fled abusive families and had it worse than he did.
Officials in Jefferson County say that the vast majority of teenagers are couch-hopping, staying with friends and relatives for as long as they’re tolerated, just as Breanna did. One official told me that, because many teenagers are bunking with families rather than camping out on park benches, it was hard to raise awareness about the homelessness problem in the community. For all intents and purposes, though, these teenagers are homeless, because such transience bears the same insecurities, stresses, and instability as living outside would, even if they are protected from the elements.
Whatever makes teenagers leave home, it usually follows that they leave school soon after. Dana Scott, who is the state coordinator for homeless liaisons in Colorado, says the dropout rate among homeless teenagers is the highest among any cohort. And there are homeless teenagers dropping out in rural, urban, and suburban districts alike. To combat it, the homeless liaisons work to maximize opportunities at school and minimize stigma: They ask gym teachers to open locker rooms early so that students can have a place to shower; they chip in for new jeans so that students have clean clothes; they stuff school backpacks full of food for students to take with them over the weekends. For a lot of students, the biggest motivator is having a friend at school to talk to; Breanna’s homeless liaison provided that.
Most of Breanna’s friends didn’t know that she was homeless, but she figures they must have thought she was weird. They wondered why she cut school. When she was there, they would stand around after lunch and talk and Breanna would have the sudden urge to run, and take off. Breanna had always thought she’d have a family, work, and have fun after high school, but the presence of her own family in town made that seem increasingly less appealing because she couldn’t imagine escaping their influence. She never thought about college until her homeless liaison mentioned the scholarship. When she got a scholarship from the Daniels Fund, which awards scholarships to students in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico and sets aside a special scholarship to students who have experienced homelessness, foster care, or problems at home, she realized college was a way out. Breanna picked the University of Denver because it was the most expensive school in the state, and since she was getting the education for free she thought the high price tag would make it a better bargain. She bought a 1997 Honda Civic with all the money she saved from Denny’s.
She had an easy time academically her first semester, though she struggled socially. In the dorms, among mostly white students who had had what seemed like easy lives, Breanna felt out of place and picked on. She said the other students made fun of the way she talked, and said racist things about Hispanics. She moved out to live in a house with roommates, and to supplement the scholarship money had two jobs, one at a pizza place and through a work-study program with the local sports arena and another at a gym as an administrative assistant. When she got a raise at the gym to $12 an hour, she quit her pizza place job. “I don’t know how I got that job!” she says.
“Since I came to DU, I sort of developed this new culture, this new persona,” she says. “I don’t tell anyone what I’ve been through, so they don’t see that. So I kind of start believing, like, ‘I am kind of this different girl.’”
Then, in December 2012, the end of the first semester of her sophomore year, a friend whom Brenna had known since she was six died of a heroine overdose. “When my friend died, I started remembering, ‘Hey, you’re kind of misplaced here.’” She started questioning her life. It made studying and struggling through two jobs harder. She has one friend whom she confides in, a roommate, who will say, “You’ve come so far. You can’t give up now.” That friend has never been homeless, though, so she doesn’t really know how tired Breanna gets. One night, in frustration, Breanna threw a vodka bottle against the wall. But it didn’t break, and bounced back and hit her instead. Even her retaliation was weak, she thought.
Breanna has reconnected with her family: She was volunteering to babysit her cousin’s baby, now two. The rambunctious toddler, who came with Breanna to the interview, seemed to take up half Breanna’s body and all her energy. Breanna had reached out to her father. “I started forgiving him and stuff,” she says. “I feel like that’s a good part of moving forward and trying to better myself. Not keeping grudges, not letting myself be angry all the time.”
The homeless liaison who had helped Breanna in high school was there; she’d set up the interview with me at a coffee shop in Denver. She listened in a state of increasing, quiet alarm. She started to jump in to reassure Breanna that DU had a great social work program—Breanna was thinking of going into social work—and that if she just stuck with it, it would all be over soon. “And you know if you ever need anything, call me. I’m still around. I just don’t know if you give yourself enough credit for how far you’ve made it,” she told Breanna.
When Breanna left, the homeless liaison was worried about the amount of time Breanna was devoting to watching her cousin’s baby, about her reconnecting with her father, about Breanna's double major, and the jobs. These stresses could derail her school. It was almost as if, she said, Breanna didn’t feel normal unless there was chaos around her.**
*A former version of this sentence misstated which entity helped Breanna get a scholarship.
**A former version of this sentence misrepresented the worries of the homeless liaison. It has been corrected.