In the mid 90’s, my mother and I were counted among North Carolina’s homeless population. Every now and then I’ll get flashes of memories of living in the shelter, but most of the time I spent there is just a blank spot in my mind. What I do remember with crystal clarity is the fear I felt during my time in the shelter. That fear could have broken a lot of people, especially someone as young as I was, but I was fortunate to have a loving mother and the new way I discovered to escape was in books.
I vividly remember my first night in the shelter. My mother and I had been staying with my Godmother for a while. They didn’t always get along, but it was a nice, comfortable, and safe home. One night, I remember seeing bright lights at the front door. I was a short child so the lights were almost at eye level with me. I stood at the door and watched them as they slowly moved up the driveway and then stopped. They were blindingly bright and it wasn’t until they were cut off that I could see where they were coming from; they were the headlights of a police car. I don’t remember why the police were called or who called them, but I do remember being so scared that my mother was going to be taken away from me. As it turns out, the car was there to take us both away. I didn’t see my Godmother again for years.
The next thing I remember is arriving at the shelter. The lady who checked us in seemed very tall and she was very nice. It was the middle of the night so she took us on a muted tour of the main areas of the shelter before showing us to our beds. The first room was a large one where the single men stayed. It was so packed with people, young and old, every bed filled with a body. The second room was a common room with tables, chairs, and a TV or two for the single women and women with children to share. On the left was the dorm for the single women and on the right was our destination; the dorm for women with children.
The first thing I noticed was the bunk beds. Being a child, I had always thought it’d be fun to sleep on a bunk bed. I was slightly excited at the prospect. When we got to our assigned beds, the excitement quickly wore off. These weren’t the brightly colored, warm and inviting beds similar to the one my best friend had. They were made of a hard, flat metal and the dull green paint was chipping off in places. The mattress was thin and hard and there were no rails on the top or bottom. My mother called them “jail cell bunk beds” and I didn’t understand why until I was older.
I woke up abruptly after rolling off of the top bunk and hitting the floor with a dull thud; my nose broke my fall. When I opened my eyes, there was blood on the floor, on my face, and my nose really hurt. My mom rushed me to the bathroom where she cleaned me up while I sat there in shock. Embarrassment and fear swirled within me with the force of a category five hurricane. Eventually, it felt as if everything came to an abrupt halt. It felt as if my mind was floating away while my body went through the motions. My mom let me sleep with her in the bottom bunk that night. Later, I learned how not to roll over in my sleep and the ability to distance my mind from my body is still with me today.
Another thing that stuck with me from that time is my love of books and reading. I learned to cope with the fear and embarrassment by losing myself in books. One of the rules for living in the shelter was you had to be out by 9 or 10 in the morning, and you couldn’t come back until around 3 in the afternoon. This was supposed to encourage people to go out and look for employment, but many people simply sat around outside until the doors opened once more.
On weekends, my mother would take me to the library across the street. While she spent time trying to find employment and housing for us, I was left to wander the stacks. I quickly went through most of the interesting books in the children’s section and moved upstairs to the young adult books. I fell in love with different stories about magic and dragons and epic romances. It was so easy to dive into these other worlds and pretend, if only for a little while, that I was some girl in a far-away land that was on a quest to find her destiny. For those blissful hours while I had my books, the fear, embarrassment, and anxiety didn’t exist. The stories in those books gave me the strength to make it through the day. If the heroine in my story could traverse a continent, defeat a dragon, and fall in love, surely I could deal with the taunts of the child a few bunks down from me.
I don’t remember much else of my time there but those first few days left a lasting impression on me. The time I spent in the library, reading books as an escape, sparked my love of literature. To this day, I still use books as a form of escape, and I spend more money than I probably should on them. My time in the homeless shelter could have been negative and certainly some parts were. I did, however, gain something positive in my love for books, and I will be forever grateful for that.
Originally published on medium.com