Being homeless is scary, but it made me stronger

Vang and her siblings slept on bunk beds at the shelter.
Illustration by Travis Robinson, a senior at Thomas Edison High School in Minneapolis
Reporter Vang Thao
Reporter Vang Thao

Long before we moved into Mary’s Place, a shelter in Minneapolis, in January 2011, my family and I knew that we were going to lose our house in St. Paul.

Our house was a duplex on the east side of the city, with a little balcony on the back. There was always a warm glow in the living room from sunlight. My little siblings would make forts out of the living room couch and race around the room in a frenzy of play.

In our bathroom with its broken door, we put on make-up and became monsters to scare our cousins.

In the basement, I was fearless. Nothing down there was scary. It was the one place that I spent the most time as a kid. I remember playing games down there with my cousins. We ran around in the dark, playing Mouse Trap and Hide and Go Seek.

My family is large – two parents and five kids – and it was hard for my parents to manage the bills and still take care of our everyday needs because only one of them had a job.

Living in a basement

When the time finally came and we lost our house due to foreclosure, we packed everything up and moved in with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. There were five bedrooms in the house but because so many people already lived there, my whole family had to sleep in the drafty basement.

We squeezed in our beds and put our personal belongings in a corner. We had to discard many of our possessions because they wouldn’t fit in the house.

Although we had a wonderfully close relationship with our relatives, our stay there was not in the least bit comfortable. There were so many people in the house that there was never a time when the bathroom wasn’t being used.

I was sad to have left the freedom and space of my own room behind, but I was grateful to my grandparents for providing a temporary shelter for us. We knew that we couldn’t stay there with them forever, no matter how much we enjoyed their company, because we had to find our own place.

We had only stayed there for a couple weeks – not even a month – when it was finally decided by my parents that we would leave. It was mid-January when, one day after school, we grabbed our things and left for Minneapolis. We arrived at Sharing and Caring Hands Center, where we were introduced to Mary’s Place.

Five kids in one room

At first, I refused to go and live in a shelter. I didn’t want to give up the small life we had created at my grandparent’s house, but deep down I knew that we couldn’t go back.

After a couple days, I found that it wasn’t so bad. It was like an apartment, only bigger. There were two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. My parents took one room and the other room was for us five kids.

Mary’s Place required us to clean our rooms daily and that rule was especially tough for us because there were seven of us in one room and it seemed like messes popped back up in the same spot that we had just cleaned.

One of the most frustrating things about living in a shelter was having a curfew. We had to be in our rooms by 9 p.m. The restriction made me feel as if I was living in a cage. It made me frustrated and angry because I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t change the rules at Mary’s Place, and I couldn’t change the fact that we’d lost our house either.

Scared and ashamed

I was scared to tell my friends I was living in a shelter. But I was also afraid to not tell them. I felt that since they were my friends, they might feel betrayed if I didn’t tell them, like I couldn’t trust them enough to understand me.

I also felt shame. I felt like if I told other people then they would pity me and think I was a poor person who was unlucky enough to have to live in a shelter.

For a while, whenever someone asked where I’d moved to, I evaded the question and vaguely answered that I lived in Minneapolis.

But guilt gnawed at me and I felt that I didn’t have to fear my friends’ reactions. I mean, come on! They are my friends! So when one of my friends asked me where I lived, I answered that I lived in a shelter in Minneapolis. He didn’t react negatively. He just asked how we lost the house and I told him we lost it to foreclosure. His reaction made me feel much closer to him.

Then I thought, “It’s okay. It’s okay to feel scared, but it feels so much better to tell the whole story.” Besides, my family and I weren’t the only ones who lost our home to foreclosure. Anyone paying attention to the news knew many other families were going through the same situation.

We made good friends with other people living in the shelter. One of the friends I made was a sweet and energetic girl. She was older than me by one year and, despite living in a shelter, she enjoyed her life to the fullest. I really enjoyed how she told me her life stories and made me feel closer to her. She reminded me to value my friends, family and everything that I did have. We’re still friends.

Getting back on our feet

Living in a shelter meant we didn’t have pay electricity, heating or water bills. We were required by the shelter to save 30 percent of our income for new housing.

Why was Vang’s family asked to leave? Mary Jo Copeland responds

Without discussing the family’s specific and confidential information it is difficult to respond accurately. Please know that we do our very best to give every family a chance to save some money and get on their feet.

Our average stay is 3-6 months; families are given more or less time depending on the family’s unique situation. It was our pleasure to work with this family for 10 months without charging any money so they were able to save.

As with every family we work with, we hope that this time helped them become stable. — Mary Jo Copeland

Our time at Mary’s Place was running out. The contract we signed allowed us to live there for 30 days, but every month, we renewed our contract. We stayed there for about 10 months, but finally, Mary Jo Copeland, the founder of Mary’s Place, wanted us to find our own place and she gave us a deadline of one week to find a house, or we would have to leave. We were outraged!

We saw families at the shelter who didn’t really make any effort, and felt the staff treated us differently. My mom was especially stressed about it because she had so much to do now that she’d found a job again.

Mary’s Place had assigned us a family advocate and they regularly checked in with us about housing opportunities. It seemed like it would be easy to find a house to live in. All you have to do is look at the house, sign a contract, pay the money, and bam! You have your very own house to live in. But I was so wrong!

Being homeless made me more confident

When we were feeling hopeless, two of our wonderful family friends came to us and started to give us ideas. They found other websites that listed homes for rent. They made calls to owners and set up appointments to see the houses.

Finally, a little light had broken through the dark clouds and with their help we were able to rent a house back in our old neighborhood in East St. Paul just one day before the end of the deadline.

When I found out that we had already signed the deal for renting the house, I became indignant. I didn’t want to leave Mary’s Place.

I’d grown attached to the shelter. I didn’t want to move in the shelter and then I didn’t really want to move out. I think I really just didn’t want to accept changes in general, by this point. And I was also scared of the same thing happening again and having to feel the loss and stress of moving.

But I knew that this move was a step forward into a better future for my family. After moving in, I immediately felt like I was home.

There was more space for everyone and because we moved so close to our school, there were more opportunities for me. I became more involved with after school activities like Peace Club, with which I participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, and the YWCA, where I’m developing new life skills like how to build good relationships, leadership and communication skills.

Our new home feels right. Losing our home and living in a shelter didn’t make me feel unstable, instead, I have learned to be confident in who I am.

I feel like I’ve matured a lot and I know I still have so much more to experience!