The invisible teen who couch surfed to stay alive
ROCKPORT — Her father dying of brain cancer was heartbreaking enough for then 16-year-old Michaela, but she had no idea how much tougher life was to become. She and her mother became homeless shortly after. “Two weeks later, my mother and I had no place to go,” she said. “We had to live out of our car, which was horrible, really uncomfortable.” She was worried about their safety as well. “Somebody could break into the car.”
“After that I couch surfed at different people’s homes.” She said that even though it seemed like a temporary solution, anxiety was always ever present. “You don’t know if there will be any food for you and you hate to even ask if you can take a shower,” she said. “I know about 10 kids in Rockland right now who are homeless and couch surfing.”
This is what the Knox County Homeless Coalition in Rockland defines as “invisible” homelessness. More than 400 adults and families living in Knox County alone are homeless, with few viable support options.
“The hidden nature of rural homelessness is why it’s so hard to believe this huge problem is right here in our backyard,” said Stephanie J. Primm executive director of Hospitality House, the Coalition’s family shelter on Old County Road in Rockport.
"I know about 10 kids in
Rockland right now
who are homeless and
Eventually, Michaela and her mother found a spot at Rockport’s Hospitality House. “Being homeless is scary,” she said. “You don’t know where you’re going to lay your head at night. You don’t know if you’re going to eat that night or even the next day. Being at the Hospitality House, I knew where I was going to sleep and I knew I was going to have food. It taught me a lot.”
She’s working toward getting her diploma, so she can get a job. “I’m very focused on that right now and getting As,” she said. “When I grow up I really want to have a good life. I want to have kids. I want to have a nice house. I don’t want to worry about where my kids are going to have to sleep in the future.”
In the two years since her father died, she has continued to persevere, even through more heartbreak as she’s had close friends pass away as well. “The reason I keep going is because I know those who’ve passed won’t want me to give up,” she said.
Michaela is one of photographer Patrisha McLean’s subjects in an exhibition of photographs and paintings on display for an art opening reception at 86 Pascal Avenue in Rockport tonight, July 27, from 5 to 7 p.m. McLean has been photographing and interviewing clients of the Hospitality House since they re-opened in 2014. McLean’s friend, Susan Williams, the artist whose dreamlike landscape oils are half of the opening, is the inspiration behind the event.
“I had work that I was giving away to my friends and the only thing I asked was that they made a donation to the Hospitality House,” Wiliams said.
Though Michaela is now living in Camden with a family member, Primm said they would welcome her back any time. Through The McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law dictates that Michaela can remain at her original school to ensure educational stability.
“In so many cases, it’s the only stable thing in their life,” said Primm. To get her to and from school, a bus picks her up and drops her off, or the Hospitality House assists with personal rides and taxis.
Michaela was the only teenager at the Hospitality House, which currently has 11 kids under the age of 12 living there. Though their maximum capacity is 22 people, their current caseload extends well beyond the house’s walls, with 270 people in the Midcoast under some sort of care and support. They often utilize campgrounds in the summer, and hotel rooms in cases where women and children need to leave dangerous and abusive situations and individuals. Since starting in February 2014, the Hospitality House has served 1,294 people, with children accounting for nearly half of those numbers.
A portion of sales from the art opening will benefit the Knox County Homeless Coalition/Hospitality House. To find out more about the myriad ways the Hospitality House helps the seemingly invisible homeless in the Midcoast click here. Donations and volunteers help provide a support system to families, and more information can be accessed here.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org