True Story: I Was Homeless

What's it like to be homeless? How does it happen and what does day-to-day life look like? Click through for one woman's story.
What’s it like to be homeless? How does it happen and what does day-to-day life look like? Today, Salena shares her story of navigating life without a home.

Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Salena. I’m 19 and I grew up in California. I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but I love to draw; mostly anime and comics.

I love creating and discovering, storytelling and adventure. Currently, I’m enrolled in college, finally completing my first semester in the spring after 3 or 4 tries. I hope to transfer to university after getting an AA in Arts to study Japanese and English.

What was your life like growing up?
My mother worked hard to raise me on her own. We moved to California when I was 6; soon after that we moved into the house I’d call a home for 11 years. She had a boyfriend for a time, whom I hated with a 5th grader passion.

My mom worked a lot, more than she was supposed to even, to make sure things stayed normal.She made sure to do something with me every Friday after she came home from work; she bought me books when I ran out of things to read, drew Disney characters so I could color them. I realize now that she’s the World’s Greatest Mom. I was lucky.

Can you tell us about the factors that led to you being homeless?
My mom has been on social security since a few car accidents in her 20’s. Things started changing for the worse in her 40’s. I was in junior high when she lost her job.

Her boyfriend had been saying that he would help pay for the bills [he was living with us] but never gave up the cash. Fast forward to losing her job, now on top of that she’s in quite a bit of debt towards the house she owned and maintained for 11 years. And social security decided to stop giving my mother benefits!

According to the law, a person on state benefits is allowed to work part-time as long as they make under a certain amount of money every month. One month, Mom got a 25 cent raise, resulting in about $100 extra income at the end of the month.

It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, especially now that I know how long $100 lasts for two people, but social security deemed it enough to stop her benefits. Of course, they were taken to court, however, this time she didn’t win.

Now, on top of the job loss, social security also claimed that both my mother and I (she was receiving benefits because of me) owed back all the money paid out to us between the time they notified mom of her termination and the final court hearing.

By this time I’d starting my first year of high school. We managed okay for a couple of months off workers’ compensation, but one day I came home from school and our old real estate agent was sitting at the table with mom. Before I knew it, the house is sold, we’d packed everything into storage, and purchased a new car with no where to go.

Can you tell us about a day in the life of a homeless person?
It’s actually boringly normal for the most part. Wake up, find a bathroom, wash up, brush teeth…etc. Go eat breakfast. Run errands, find a way to not be homeless. If there’s nothing to do just hang out, go to the library, a movie. Take a nap. Eat lunch.

Sit around and wait for the day to be over, please. Dinner. Find a place to settle down, find a bathroom, change clothes, sleep. There was no real reason to stop normal habits.

How did you deal with the logistics of homelessness? Where did you shower? Where did your mail go? What did you do with all your ‘stuff’?
In the beginning, mail went to my aunt’s house, then a P.O box, then an office that offered services for homeless people. Home Base one of the shelters offered showers. But before that, there were hotel rooms, and before that, we made due with park bathrooms.

Our stuff went into storage for the three years we were homeless. During the fourth year we had a late payment and they auctioned everything from our two-bedroom home off for $400. We got $98 of it. We stayed in one area, where my school was located, until I graduated.

Did you ever live in a shelter? What was that like?
I had school from 7 to 2:30 during the week, so I was occupied. My mom sat in the park mostly, waiting to pick me up. At 3:30 the shelter opened its doors, which lead to another 3 hours of waiting before the first 50 of us were loaded onto a bus with padded mats and garbage bags full of blankets and the like.

The drive to the churches was usually between five minutes to one hour, then we’d unload and eat the dinner the churchgoers had prepared after letting them pray at us (no really, I love Jesus personally, but these people prayed AT us, every time)

We ate mostly meat and potatoes but there were a few places that served us nice things, like pasta, casserole and vegetarian options. After that there was more cleaning, moving of objects, then the 50 sometimes plus of us would stealthily battle from a spot to sleep.

No one wanted to sleep next to the snorers or the booze-reekers or the insomniacs or the ‘monitors table’. After a few months my mother and I got a hang of it. Lights out at 10pm and on again at 6:30 am.

More cleaning. Maybe breakfast, depending on where we were staying that night, loading the bus, driving back to home base which closed at 7:30 am. Then we were left to fend for ourselves for the rest of the day.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about homelessness? Or homeless people?
* That homeless people can just up and get a job because it’s way more complicated than that. Especially when you have limited clothing and nowhere to really rest and a shelter that closes its doors to anyone not there by 3:30 pm everyday.

* That homeless people can just save money. Like it’s that simple, like living doesn’t require what little money, if any, they get.

* That they’re idiots. There were tons of perfectly capable human beings being treated like dogs because they lost their home.

* That all homeless people don’t want to be homeless. I’ve found out that a lot of them actually don’t care about anything other than beer and whatever vice they happen to have.

* That we don’t have the right to be picky. We came from a two bedroom house and a comfortable life. We cannot just, ‘give everything up’ we cannot just ‘start over from the beginning’. It’s painful. It sucks. And it’s hard – harder than you’d think.

What led to you eventually finding a home?
Giving in. We finally got accepted into a program that pays like, 80% of rent based off income, but couldn’t find anywhere but the cheap apartment buildings right next to the shelter. Two years later we’re still looking.

What advice would you give to someone facing homelessness? Or someone whose loved one is facing it?
Don’t judge them.

For whatever reason you or someone you know has been rendered homeless, don’t guilt them or pressure them or scorn them because of it. Sympathize. Someone just lost everything, there’s nothing left.

Keep your wits about you. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but be careful who you tell. Don’t settle, something better will come along.

Don’t stop living your normal life. Go to the doctor, shop for a new dress, go out with friends, keep going to school. A home doesn’t make you, so don’t act as though your life is over.

Do you know anyone who has been homeless? Any questions for Salena?

P.S. I’m a Black Muslim living in Trump’s America & I live in a haunted house.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

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  1. Ellie Di

    This story is so moving; you and your mom are so brave and strong for being able to keep your heads high during those years. I can't imagine the things that were taken from you besides your possessions. Amazing interview, amazing lady.

  2. The Curious Cat

    I'm not sure things are like this in the UK…I hope not – I assume there are systems set in place and to me it sounds ridiculous that you would lose your home but I guess it is different in different countries. Is there council housing in the US? Maybe not? It is awful that you had to go through this…xxx

  3. Rachael

    I am a young person in California too on that same program that dropped your mom and it's TERRIFYING to know that any day they can just drop me like a hot potato. As soon as I started reading about her woes with social security, I just knew… their domineering control over beneficiaries is insane. Good luck to you & your mom, Sabrina!

  4. Samantha

    Amazing story especially the advice part about judging those who are homeless. Unfortunately I had a few employess when I was living in California that was on the verge of happening what happened to your mom. They were the hardest workers that I had, but even a 10 cent raise would take away all their assistance that they got and an extra 10 cents an hour doesn't go far in LA. What made it harder was that we worked for a large retailer so I would just give them a review and corporate would judge their raise. The only way to get around them not getting a raise was to give them a bad review, but a bad review meant possibly loosing their job. It was the worst Catch 22 situation in the world.

  5. Liz

    Thanks so much for posting this. I blogged about "the homeless" and some advice that my dad gave me a while back, regarding whether or not to help people out who need money.
    Anyway, it's really good to read your perspective.
    Thank you.

  6. Sarah Von Bargen

    The Curious Cat,
    I think the housing that Selena ended up in is America's equivalent of council housing. The problem with our low-income housing (and I'm sure many other countries have this issue) is that there are simply too many people and not enough housing. I can't speak for the application process in California, but in Minnesota, it will often take you six months – two years to get into housing after you've applied 🙁

  7. Sora

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    When I was a teenager, I knew a number of kids who were homeless. Most of them did not have the advantage of having a loving parent with them in that struggle. (of the ones I knew well, 1 was orphaned and 1 had been abandoned by his father after his mother died.)

    Those of us who are lucky enough to have homes really have trouble understanding the challenges that face the homeless. That's why hearing stories like this is so important.

    But I do have a question. Maybe it's one that Sabrina can answer, maybe it's not. My conundrum with homeless individuals has always been whether or not to give them money. I give money to various charities, and I sometimes wonder which is best. To give to an organization, or to give to the guy on the corner. What is your personal opinion?

  8. Sora

    and I meant Salena, not Sabrina! Someone else said Sabrina and I got all confused! So sorry!

  9. Salena


    Hiya! Salena here~ Personally, I think you should do what you feel is right in your heart, whether it's to give to a person or a organization! There will always be misgivings about what people will do with the money you give them, and you never know what exactly certain organizations are doing. But doing one small thing like what you are suggesting could possibly be a great help for someone! You could be turning the tide for them! Same with places~

    I know when I was homeless my mom ran into a woman at a Safeway who she was compelled to tell her story to and the woman pulled $100 right out of her checking for us! It was such a godsend cause at that moment we were doing pretty bad. It's amazing how much some kind words and a little help did to up out spirits~

    So yes ^^' I hope this helps you!

  10. Salena

    Salena again! Thank you all for the kind words! We really appreciate them, they mean so much <3

    And good luck to everyone dealing with similar situations!

  11. Amy Nieto

    "A home doesn't make you, so don't act as though your life is over."

    Something about this just hit – well, home. You are amazing for keeping your head high during this period of your life. Your teenage years, no less! I hope you are having fun in college and that it will lead you to great things now and in the future. Thank you for sharing, Salena!

  12. isa

    Wow, thanks Salena! This is really an eye-opener, thanks thanks thanks a lot! And I hope you can finally find what you can call a home!

  13. Salena

    @ Amy and Isa

    you know just the other day I was talking with my mom, you know how people say 'home is where the heart is?' The truth of that hit me really hard, that home is just where the people you love are. We've been living in this new apartment for like 2 months and it already feels like we've been living here forever because we've got each other~

    • Nelly

      I will pray for you and your mom always. I live in California, and all my life something in me hurts for the homeless, I do not have a lot of income, or excellent health, but I have a heart and when I can help someone I just do it. Like today I got out of my car and gave some money to someone that lives in a little tent by my work place, I asked God to protect me and I was so happy after I did it. I have so much respect for you and your mom sweetheart. Remember, your dreams can come true, with a lot of effort and always looking up to heaven, asking God for wisdom and strenght and His will to be done in your life. God bless 🙂

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  15. Katy

    My mother, sister and I are in the process of having to move (2x in a year) due to abusive landlords, and we're fighting now not to become homeless (the economy is so terrible and rent is extremely high). This was a really insightful interview! Thank you!

  16. Anonymous

    Letting out your emotions is good & sad to me because I was a homeless teen. I’m in my 30’s now & it seems that I kept a lot of pain & heart coming from the streets. Like you can’t seem to shake the anxiety it brought not knowing day to day where you would be. Its a lot of self embarrassment with your head down mentality asking Jesus why. And you get a big heart for your peers in the same situation & can’t just let your past go. Its like its all you know. To some like you(god bless) it seemed to make you stronger.



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