Yvette Alston: Looking for Shelter and a New Start
By ANTONINA JEDRZEJCZAK
Yvette Alston, 20, with a ready smile, stopped by her grandmother’s house a couple of weeks ago. The two women talked for a few minutes before she offered to fix her granddaughter’s hair. While the perm set, Yvette enjoyed spending time at the house, and even though her grandmother didn’t come right out and say it, her eyes revealed a certain softness, a momentary glint of concern.
But just like the times she had dropped by in the weeks before, her grandmother abruptly cut their time short and led Yvette to the front door. Things have been this way since her grandmother had kicked Yvette out on the street one recent March night, leaving her suddenly without shelter.
Since becoming homeless, Yvette has been living at Covenant House, a shelter for kicked out and runaway youth in midtown Manhattan. She’s been there since early March. Though she has a mother and father, three siblings, grandparents and aunts, she is without a home. She’s also one class away from getting a high school diploma and has to complete the credit before she turns 21 and can no longer enroll as a traditional high school student.
While Yvette talked about realizing her mistakes and desperately wanting a better future, she still finds it difficult to summon enough enthusiasm to attend her 90-minute class one afternoon a week. She constantly frets that her absences will prevent her from graduating in June. The displacement she feels within her own family and the stress of being homeless has taken a heavy toll on her ability make it through the day.
Before she arrived at Covenant House, Yvette had been living with her grandparents and younger brother and sister. Abandoned by her mother as a baby in the hospital, she was raised by her great-grandmother in South Carolina. She only found out who her father was through a DNA test when she was 15, she said, and that man wants no part of her life. When her great-grandmother passed away five years ago, Yvette came to live with her grandmother.
Her new guardian was a largely unknown figure—someone Yvette had only seen each year at Christmas. The two women didn’t get along most of the time and Yvette admitted that it was difficult for her to contain her temper. She argued verbally while her grandmother would often revert to slapping and hitting, she said. Arguments revolved around Yvette’s boyfriend, whom the grandmother disliked, and the stringent household rules that Yvette felt she had long since outgrown.
“I’m twenty years old and she wants me home by 6:00 p.m.,” said Yvette, who, after coming home late one night in March, was told by her grandmother to take her things and leave.
“I didn’t think she was serious but she said she’d call the police,” Yvette recalled.
That night, Yvette slept in the staircase of her apartment building.
“I thought if I stayed in the staircase I’d be a little bit more comfortable and safe,” she said.
Though her friends and boyfriend tried to help as much as they could, and even gave her money on repeated occasions, they could not offer her a place to stay for more than a couple of nights. It was the teachers at her school, Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, that helped by giving her clothes, shoes, money and information about Covenant House.
Though her older brother offered to have her come stay with him in South Carolina, Yvette turned him down and chose to stay in New York City—even if it meant being homeless. She likes the friends she’s made over the last couple of years and the mobility the city affords her. A big worry is being stuck in suburban South Carolina without a car or any way to get around.
Yvette’s typical day at Covenant House consists of going to her part-time job as a cleaner at Episcopal Social Services—a paid internship through her school. The job lasts from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. On Thursdays at four o’clock, she goes to the health class she still needs to pass in order to finish high school.
“I haven’t been really going so I’m afraid they’re gonna not pass me,” she said, of her chronic absenteeism.
The distance to her school, which made a lot more sense when she lived with her grandma in Co-Op City in the Bronx, is one of the many reasons she cited for missing class.
In addition to the physical distance, the psychological distance—the weight of feeling ostracized within her family—is constantly on her mind.
“I can’t concentrate, I still have all this stuff in my head,” she said.
No matter the obstacles confronting her, Yvette sees it as an opportunity to prioritize her life and do things on her own. Getting her diploma has become very important to her. She now recognizes her past mistakes and realizes the steps she needs to take in order to have the sort of future she has always imagined, she said.
College is definitely in those future hopes, with the aspiration of becoming a journalist or psychologist.
“I like to write and I want others to see my work. I show it to my friends but I want everyone else to see it, too,” she said.
Since she was little, Yvette has enjoyed writing—stories, poems, plays and non-fiction accounts from her own life and the lives of her friends. In middle school she won a poetry competition and was awarded a plaque signed by her classmates and $200. The end of her middle school years coincided with the loss of her great-grandmother, the only mother figure she’d known. Subsequently, her grades and attendance took a turn for the worse. Poetry still provides her with a cathartic outlet, a place to voice her disappointment at some of life’s failings.
Right now, Yvette is waiting to hear back from Job Corps, a federal work program, and has been granted a three-week extension at Covenant House to cover the wait. If she gets in, she will be headed to Albany in the summer, when she will start a nursing program.
She thinks a lot about the way her grandmother, mother and younger siblings treated her but she tries to keep a positive attitude, whenever possible, at Covenant House. Though college is something she aspires to, right now the focus is on finishing her coursework and getting her high school diploma come June.
“If I could go back, I would do everything differently, because I know what’s right now and what’s wrong. This situation is gonna help me grow,” she said.