Homeless in Suburbia

Michael Lyddon slept on this bench at night because he had nowhere else to go. According to elected officials in Fort Bend, though, he doesn't exist

One thing Michael isn't is shy. The official story he has represented to teachers and caseworkers is that his speed-addicted mom bounced him around to more than a dozen schools in California when he was little and gave him a marijuana joint to smoke for Christmas when he was seven. And how in eighth grade he fled his mom's chaotic household, seeking a more stable environment with his dad in Pecan Grove, an upscale community just outside Sugar Land. But, Michael says, he quickly learned that his father had problems of his own after finding lighters that sparked huge flames stashed in the apartment. One night Dad pressured Son to try crack-cocaine and Michael was instantly addicted, his story goes. He stopped going to school and started stealing from friends and getting into fights. One drug-deal-gone-bad cost him two upper teeth. He eventually managed to quit the drugs but was illiterate when he enrolled in ninth grade. "I went into a class and put my head down and I passed," he says of his middle-school years.

Every homeless kid's story is unique, and many are plain brutal. "For a lot of them," says Jennings, "the kids are very mature and it's the parents who have the issues." Steinberg, the UH researcher, agrees: "They're not always delinquents; sometimes they have good reason to run away."

Adam, an 18-year-old senior at Kempner High School who did not want his actual name revealed, was attending Sugar Land Middle School when one morning he discovered his mother's unusually pale, clammy body hunched over her bed. She had overdosed on painkillers. Adam found his mom's suicide note, which instructed him to go live with his older sister. But she had a boyfriend who delighted in pinning him to the floor and whaling on his back. In tenth grade Adam started cutting, and he has the scars on his arms and back to prove it. Tired of getting beaten by his sister's boyfriend, Adam moved out to Katy to live with his eldest brother and enrolled at Morton Ranch High School. But the brothers clashed and eventually Adam got tossed.

He spent several days sleeping outside before his best friend's family took him in. He has lived with them for several months and follows their rules regarding curfew, homework and cleanliness. But the situation still feels temporary. "If I do something wrong, I don't know if I'm gonna be back on the street," he says. "They say they wouldn't do that, but it's a feeling I have inside me."

The National Center for Homeless Education reports more than half of unaccompanied youths report being physically abused at home, and more than one-third allege sexual abuse. Two-thirds say that at least one of their parents abuses drugs or alcohol. Once out of the home, they are frequently victimized. As many as half have been assaulted or robbed; one in ten runaways reports being raped. Juanita, an 18-year-old senior at George Bush High School who also did not want her real name used, was kicked out of her adoptive mother's house when she was 11 after an argument.

"One day I came home from school," she says, "and my stuff was piled up outside the door." She stayed with friends and extended family. Last year, she says, she was raped by a student who let her move into his family's home for a week. For several months Juanita has found some sense of normalcy and safety living with her best friend's family, who take her on outings to malls and restaurants. Few classmates know about her experiences. "I don't tell anybody because I don't want them to look at me different," she says. "And anyway, if you're trying to get rid of your past, why talk about it?"

For 33 years Dulles High School teacher Martha Wood opened her own house to students fleeing abuse, a practice that is increasingly less common due to fears of false allegations and lawsuits. Wood, who is 67 and retired from FBISD three years ago, housed dozens of teenagers. Some stayed one night, others four years. Referrals came from the school principal, counselors, teachers and the students themselves. "The abuse of some of them was absolutely unreal," she says, adding that two teens attempted suicide in her home. "There was such a need, and we had the room."

Michael's decision to leave home and stay with friends was embraced by FBISD social workers. So far this year he has shown some improvement, posting a good attendance rate and passing classes. He now reads at a seventh-grade level, and credits his progress to special-education teacher Adrienne Thompson, who knows all about his situation and sometimes lets him doze off in class but then pushes him harder the next day. "Some kids with all this money complain they have no PlayStation 3, no new BMW," Thompson says. "This kid doesn't know where he's going to sleep at night and he takes it all in stride, with a big goofy grin on his face."

Michael insists he isn't homeless. Those nights spent on park benches? "I was just arguing with my dad so I went outside to sleep," he says. Staying with a different friend every night? "Homeless, to me, means no place to go," he says. "But, yeah, I mean, it would be nice to have, like, a steady place to stay. To have my own things, my own house that no one can take away."

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