This does not define me

This+does+not+define+me

Joe Cristo

Freshman year at Huntley High School left as fast as it came, and there was only half a credit to show for it. A mix of unapologetic laziness and a “this will never end” attitude left an impossible to remove blemish on his high school transcript.
Sophomore year saw a new environment and a new school. Unfortunately, this was not for the better.  

Walls flush with grey weave with a splatter into a vibrant orange and black. Spotted black tiles dot the floor, grabbing students and leading them just past the milk coolers and into line. As everyone approaches the lunch counter, they are subject to questions about what they will eat.  While each meal costs approximately $2.00, prices can skyrocket to a jaw dropping $5.50, so students must be wise. They ask themselves, “Can I afford anything other than the bare minimum?”

And, curiously, one out of six at Crystal Lake Central High School knows the answer to that question.

Crowded around each other with their yellow free or reduced lunch cards, each student gets to pick from the scarce options presented to them. These cards allow them to get through the day with something in their stomachs.

While a sight like this seems appropriate for the distant community of Crystal Lake, it is not an isolated administrative headache.  Instead, about 12 percent of students at Huntley High School, 280 individuals, are on free or reduced lunches as well. But a bigger problem arises for some teens. Bigger than missing a full and satisfying meal. Bigger than having to carry around that yellow free or reduced lunch card.

14 of those 280 students are also homeless.

But ask anyone who has been put in this situation regardless of location, regardless of race or religion, and you will receive a reply nearly identical to one another.

“This does not define me.”

Although for a select student, while his economic struggle does not define him, it does affect him.

For him, every day brings a rush past three corridors on the bottom floor of a government funded apartment building. A tremble in his walk as he passes the peepholes on each and every door. A feeling that they are all filled with eyes watching his every movement.

Every day entails a brisk walk from his mother’s car to his bus stop where seniors Tim Sloma and Galen Jaggers, friends since they were all children, greet their close confidant but lost neighbor.

Every day after school means waiting two hours until his mother will pick him up, no matter what time she is let go from her job as a receptionist at a free clinic and no matter how drastic the temperature may vary.

Every other day means a visit to the food pantry.  Rows of food. Piles of paperwork. Each morsel carefully divided into fair parcels, no matter who has it worse off than others.

But these are not handouts. Instead, they are meant to help balance a family’s daily life. Some use these services for a few financially stressful months, others for years.

“When I visited a food pantry five years ago, the woman running it asked us all a question,” said Shandon Nixon. “’How many people do you think were here at noon?’ The group responded with ’50.’ What we found out was that the answer was one.  Everyone else was either at work or at school. Most homeless families or government housing residents are trying to get out of the situation they are in.”

But how do responsible people like this get where they are in the first place?
Jacqueline was the owner of a bustling real estate service. Married to a man who had his ups and downs, economically and physically, she managed to carry the entire weight of her family’s economic stability on her shoulders. But when the housing crisis of 2008 struck a blow to her livelihood, she was not able to keep her home. While she had struggled for years to make ends meet as the sole income producing adult, she always managed to pay the bills. But after what was the United States worst recession in years, the load became too much to bear.

She had lost the house.

While many families rally around an ailing relative who has hit financial woes, little to no support was extended towards Jacqueline. When her family home in Lake in the Hills was being foreclosed on, her family came in and tore the house apart taking as much as they could with them.

After a year of serious financial ruin, Jacqueline was no longer capable of supporting the lifestyle her family had become accustomed to. No more expensive restaurant visits, costly presents or excessive birthday parties.

Instead, her family would have to focus and pool their resources.

They would have to understand what it would be like to barely get by on each paycheck, month-to-month.

They would have to understand that their new apartment really was not their home, just a temporary means of assistance.

They would have to understand that what has happened to them, all of their emotional and financial strife, was not their fault. That sometimes, the homeless are just victims.

“Most homeless people get that way because they turn to drugs or alcohol,” said junior Jordan Stringer.

“I always figured it was insanity plus refusing mental care,” said senior Craig Walsh.

“I think most homeless just get in the situation they are in because they are negative,” said junior Jacy Hermansen. “It’s not like they deserve it. Just sometimes they look at all of the negative things in their life and give up.”

Most students believe that the homeless of America are struggling simply because of substance abuse problems, the homeless do not try to leave their rough situations, they enjoy the adventurous nature of their lives, or they refuse to work.

But according to a 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 43% of the homeless in America work on a regular basis. Full-time jobs, in fact.

Sometimes people become homeless because the economic system we live in makes it difficult to climb out of any fiscal hole.

According to the same report, the average minimum wage employee would need an 89 hour work week just to pay rent for an apartment, not to mention other essentials like food and clothing.

That is more than half of all the hours in a week.

According to a 2009 report by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, 10 percent of all homeless are homeless specifically because of the housing crisis.

Not because of substance abuse. Not because of how negative they are. Instead, it is because the higher ups on Wall Street gambled with their mortgages, and tragically, their lives.

“I never thought it could happen to me, it just seemed so far away,” said senior Jesus Venegas. “Homelessness seems like such a non-issue, another world. But it isn’t, it can happen in a blink of an eye.”

Mentioned above, Venegas is in the center of the debate on how people become and remain homeless. Having to mount the serious implications of what homelessness means to someone’s social life, he decided he needed to speak out. Not to receive any sense of pity, but instead, to have people understand the truth about the homeless and economically challenged of America.

“I don’t want any ‘Awhs’ or ‘Ohhh Jesse!’” said Venegas. “This is not about what I had to overcome. It is just about the situation I am in. But really, people just need to understand: being homeless is not just because you’ve done something wrong. Sometimes it’s just something out of your control, yaknow?”