In a motel room, a homeless high schooler weighs her future

No place to have friends over

Paul Clark

Destine Patterson fiddled with her phone while the TV played inside the motel room, her home of about 24 hours. Her great-aunt Effie Simpson rubbed her hands together, trying to bring warmth to them. After six months of living in a shed in Black Mountain, she still hadn’t warmed up.

The motel room in east Asheville on Nov. 22 was overly warm, with a patch of sunlight pouring in through a window half-covered by blinds. Destine, 16, was lying in bed in a tank top, propped up against the headboard, explaining that this was the sixth, maybe seventh, place she’d lived in the past five years. She and her great-aunt had the room for a week. What happens immediately after that is anyone’s guess, Simpson said, bundled in a sweatshirt.

Destine, who goes to Community High School in Swannanoa, is one of 350 homeless students in Buncombe County schools right now, said Christine Craft, the school system’s homeless liaison. The number of homeless students is “way ahead” of how many the system had by this time last year, Craft said. By the end of this school year, there will likely be more than the 554 homeless students tallied last year, she believes.

Statewide, there were 27,833 homeless students during the 2014-15 school year, according to the most recent data supplied by the North Carolina Homeless Education Program.

Nearly three quarters of those students were “doubled up,” or living with another family, sleeping on floors, couches or beds. Nearly 12 percent were living in motels. Three percent had no shelter at all. Nearly 10 percent were on their own altogether, according to the program, which is contracted by the state Department of Public Instruction to make sure the state’s program for teaching homeless students complies with federal law.

Studies indicate that homeless students are at higher risk for repeating grades, skipping school or dropping out altogether, Craft said.  On average, homeless students move three times a year, and for some, each move drops them back a year academically.

Many Buncombe County homeless students live in inexpensive motels. Craft, who has worked with homeless students for seven years, knows of some who have lived in them, with their families, as long as two years. “We’ve had some that live in homeless shelters, tents, their cars,” she said. “I even had a family living in a storage unit one time. Pretty much anywhere you can imagine.”

Destine (pronounced “Destiny”) and her great-aunt had been living in the shed since May before they had to leave Nov. 21, either because a county building inspector told them to, according to Craft, or because a relative on the property no longer wanted them there, according to Simpson. The shed – Craft has three other students living in sheds in various places - didn’t have electricity or running water. The ground was visible through cracks in the floor. Destine used cardboard to block cold air that came in the vent in the loft where she slept.

“Cold. Very cold,” she described it in an interview Nov. 22. “It was warmer outside than inside.”

Destine was pretty upset that she and her great-aunt had to leave, according to Craft said. “She’s worried,” she said. “She worries about her great-aunt. I think it’s tough for a kid her age to have that responsibility.”

Destine and Simpson are close. It was to Simpson that Destine ran when she started running away from foster care. Living with her mother hadn’t worked out. Neither had living with her father. Destine always came to Simpson, in whose care the court finally put her.

“It’s tough,” Destine said of her situation, betraying not the slightest bit of self-pity. “I sort of had to grow up early. I never had a grown-up around."

Students are homeless in Buncombe County for a lot of reasons, Craft said. Some come from unstable homes where there is substance abuse. Some come from loving families where there isn’t enough money.

“And in large part, it’s just that our housing market in Asheville and Buncombe County is horrible,” Craft said. “Families can’t find housing they can afford. And if they have a Section 8 voucher (that subsidizes rent) or income coming in, there’s just a lack of affordable units for families in a poverty situation.”

Some who can afford the rent don’t have the savings for the significant deposits required. “Fifteen hundred dollars or $2,000, that’s a lot of money for me to come up with, let alone a family scraping by,” Craft said.

Some kids bear being homeless better than others. Craft believes that Destine is doing pretty well, all things considered. ‘“Resiliency’ is probably the best word. They’re able to cope,” she said. “At school, they can feel normal and forget about their problems at home for a while.

“There are a lot of kids that could benefit from having other adults in their lives, like mentors. But school, that’s the best, safest place for them. If they can get to school, that seems to be a good place for them.”

Destine said she doesn’t feel particularly unusual. She knows a lot of students at Community High School that she would describe as homeless, or in foster care. Buncombe County Schools tries to provide some stability to the students’ lives, providing extended bus routes or gas money if the family will keep them in the same school. The system supplies them with mentors and tutors when necessary.

Destine Patterson kills time with the TV while her great-aunt Effie Simpson struggles to keep warm in their temporary home, a motel in Swannanoa.

Some homeless students drop out of school several times, while others are academically gifted and straight-A students, Craft said. The extra attention that Destine has received at Community High School has her on track to graduate this year, she said. She’s applied for admission at Winston-Salem State, N.C. Central University and North Carolina A&T. She wants to be a neonatal nurse practitioner.

Things are looking up for her. Community members are working together to build a small house for her and her great-aunt in Swannanoa. Plans are to pour the foundation this week. “I’m just hoping and praying it will be ready for Christmas,” Simpson said.

“Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had someone else’s life, someone with rich parents,” Destine said. “It seems like they don’t have to worry about paying for college. They get a car for their 16th birthday. I always wondered what that was like.”

But other than not knowing how or when she’ll end up in a permanent home, she’s doing OK, she said. “People didn’t think I’d make it this far, but I did. I didn’t think I’d make it this far.”