By RICHIE GERGEL
HOMELESS IN HIGH SCHOOL This story is part of a series of video blogs and articles on homeless high school students in New York City. Click here to see more from this series.
Just shy of 9:30 p.m. on a night in April, minutes before curfew, dozens of chatty teenagers lined up behind the metal detector at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth near Times Square. The security guards riffled through the usual array of belts, crumpled candy wrappers and reused plastic bags, sniffing the insides of shampoo bottles, emptying coat pockets.
A thick book of SAT practice tests stood out on the inspection table. A guard slowly thumbed through its pages. He looked up at the book’s owner, Miguel Gabin, one of the shelter’s newest residents. Then he slowly handed back the book.
Most of the Covenant House youth are not enrolled in high school. Miguel, 18, is one of the few. He returned to classes in January after spending two years working at Wendy’s and IHOP to support his impoverished family of four.
Now two years older than most high school juniors, the long-haired, soft-spoken sophomore is preparing for the SAT for the first time. “I study these books,” he says. “I’ve got to if I’m going to have it down.”
Four months ago, when Miguel enrolled in Independence High School, a alternative school designed for 18- to 21-year-olds, his life was stable for the first time in a while. He is so determined to stay in school now that he made the difficult decision to find shelter in this rescue center, even if temporarily, in order to pursue his high school degree.
“I was so excited to be going forward to not be working for minimum wage,” he says of his decision to stay in school. “I knew I wasn’t going to do that ever again.”
Last January, Miguel moved to the Bronx into his grandparents’ home, his first stable existence in years. Years prior, he had moved with his frail mother and three younger siblings from homeless shelters to apartments they could ill afford. This newfound comfort and stability meant Miguel could return to school for the first time since 2007, the year his mother convinced him to leave school to support his family.
But the education this move enabled is now in jeopardy.Thrown out of his grandparents’ home after an argument over computers – his younger brother’s obsession — Miguel has returned to the transience and instability of a homeless youth.
Covenant House is not a long-term facility. Most residents stay only 30 days. He has no idea where he will go next.
Miguel’s story, like most at Covenant House, is complicated. Much of his life has been spent in shelters.
He moved to Cleveland at the age of nine after his father was sent to prison. His Dominican mother, who spoke no English, took her three children to Ohio after a friend of his father offered a home to the family.
There he spent afternoons with his younger brother in the living room of a home in suburban Cleveland, stuffing small plastic bags with crack cocaine.“They always had us bagging,” Miguel said. “They knew the cops wouldn’t check a little kid, so they took us with them to buy it and sell it too.”
After six months in Cleveland, he fled with his mother and siblings on a bus to Jersey City, where he would spend his childhood moving among Jersey City homeless shelters.
He switched shelters, and schools, at least twice every year.
“One of the shelters would put us in a room for a couple of months and my grades were good,” he said. “And I would think I’m doing better now. But then all a sudden we would have to apply to another shelter and it all starts over.”
The family sustained themselves on the non-perishable diet of food pantry shelves: raisins, powdered potatoes, canned beans. “We were just poor,” he said, “surviving on what we had.”
His mother’s meager income was never enough. She worked minimum wage jobs at factories near Jersey City, but chronic health problems often left her unable to work the hours necessary to support a family of four.
The eldest of three, Miguel soon became the man of the family.
At 15, Miguel found a job as a part-time cashier at a McDonald’s, where he earned $100 a week.
As he earned money of his own, he realized how badly he wanted out of homeless shelters, where his family sometimes slept four to a bed.
Between the money his mother earned from his mother’s factory work and income he earned at McDonalds, they moved into their own apartment. But his mom soon became so ill she was forced into a hospital, leaving Miguel to support and watch after his sister and brother.
“The bills were really accumulating,” he said. “I was taking care of my sister and paying for everything with this little part time job.”
Determined to stay in their apartment, Miguel dropped out of school for a full-time job at Wendy’s.“It was that or we were going back to a shelter,” he said. “My little sister was getting hungrier. I said no. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t do both.”
But the money he earned at Wendy’s wasn’t enough. His brother, one year younger, soon dropped out to wait tables at IHOP. Their income kept them out of homeless shelters, but out of school as well. They earned enough to eat and pay their rent, but in turn sacrificed their access to education.
When their mother returned from the hospital, she too got a job at IHOP, preparing the orders her soon took. Miguel soon joined, as a dishwasher, working two full time jobs.
“I was ready to drop on the floor,” Miguel said. “I still kept going because I was the man of the house.” He spent mornings and afternoons at IHOP and worked overnight shifts at Wendy’s, sleeping four hours a night.
And then the recession hit.
Miguel, his mother and his brother were all fired from IHOP in the fall. It was the season of layoffs and downsizing, and few employers were looking to hire teenage high-school dropouts.Their mother grew ill and their situation grew more desperate. She contacted their father, recently released from prison, who had not seen his family since a 2005 prison visit. Miguel, who “kind of hated him,” didn’t complain when he agreed to take care of his sons.
They never moved in with their father. He simply left them at his parents’ home instead. But in his grandparents house Miguel found the closest thing to a normal childhood he had ever known. He no longer had to support a hungry family. There were no late nights at the take out window. There was no more pressure to make rent. There was time to relax.
“We were in Bedford Park. We were ok. We ate,” Miguel said, without a hint of irony.
He had time of his own. He watched TV. He took walks.
“We went to the park one day and we saw kids coming out of school,” Miguel said.
Free from the work schedule that cut him off from his youth, he began to realize how unusual his situation was. “I was thinking man, I’m already 18,” he said, “It’s too late for me to go to school. Then I looked at my brother and said ‘it’s not too late for you to go back to school.’”
He took his brother to a Department of Education office in the Bronx to enroll in school. They waited hours for a list of schools they could attend.
“I thought they would just shove you in some school, but you have to call yourself,” Miguel said. “They gave us a big list of schools. So I pulled out my cell phone and we started calling them one by one.”
Because of his age, Miguel struggled to find a high school that would allow him to enroll. He eventually found Independence High School, a “second chance” school designed for 17 to 21-year-old students who left school in the past. “When I found a school that took me I saw stars in my eyes,” Miguel said. “I was happy. I was high. I was drunk. I could have fallen over. I wanted to cry.”
Miguel began classes at Independence High School the next week. He arrived to his first day of class in school in a suit and tie. “I was so excited to be going forward and to not be working for minimum wage. It was like getting your first car. So shiny and new.”
His grades were good. He was settling into a routine. He was making friends and making up for the algebra he had forgotten. “I was thinking this is my chance to actually go to school and keep doing what I can do,” he said. “Get educated. Go to college.”
But the stability that allowed him to enroll in school came to an abrupt end in March. While visiting Miguel and his brother, his father began to argue about the use of a computer.
His father attacked Miguel’s brother, he said. Miguel then struck his father. The argument erupted and the family told the boys to leave.
“They followed us around the house as we grabbed our things,” Miguel said. He left with his brother, his driver’s license and his book bag.
“Clothes would have been too heavy to move around,” he said. “I’d moved enough that I knew what I was doing.”
They found their way to a homeless shelter in Manhattan, where they spent the night. They checked into Covenant House the next morning.
His brother eventually joined his mom in Pennsylvania, where she is staying with relatives. Miguel stayed at Covenant House, alone.
Free of the responsibility to support his family, he says he feels more strained than ever. He says his school days are interrupted by stress-induced nosebleeds.
“I keep thinking I can do this for my family,” he said. “I can study now and then study computers and mechanical engineering later. My mom could come live with me. And I could maintain her. I could pay all her hospital bills. I could prove to my father that even though he’s not there for me I can still go forward.”
His face betrays no anxiety. He looks distant, meditative, almost dazed, as if constantly thinking two things at once.