Growing Up Homeless: A Student Shares Her Story

In and out of schools, this Washington state student shares what she learned while homeless

Ashley Danielson
Ashley Danielson (far right) and her friends at middle school in Marysville | Photo credit: Impatient Optimists

Editor's Note: This piece was first published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at Impatient Optimists.

In fourth grade, my friends didn’t want to come play at my house. They were embarrassed because we lived at a motel. I’d been in and out of motels for so long already that it didn’t occur to me to be embarrassed.

I’ve been homeless for most of my life. My family lived in and out of motels, we’ve been evicted too many times to count, and one summer we lived in a tent. Needless to say, I don’t really like hiking or camping since then.

My mom did her best for me, even as I shuffled through four or five different elementary schools.

Now I have my own apartment, I’m in my second year at Edmonds Community College, and I intend to transfer to one of the state universities to get a teaching degree. My end goal — the thing that motivates me to keep going — is to use my experience to bring something extra to teaching, to see and support the kids who are going through what I went through, and to make sure that I am there for the kids who need it the most.

But first, let me tell you more about my story.

When I got to middle school, it was easier. We had an apartment for nearly the whole time, so I could pay more attention in school without having to worry so much, but then we got evicted before school was out. We moved in with my mom’s boyfriend; he was abusive but she couldn’t stop being around him, and he lived about half-an-hour away from my school, up in Lynwood when my school was in Marysville.

In the afternoon I’d ride the bus back with all the other homeless kids. Even though school got out at 2:25 p.m., I didn’t get home until 6 p.m. because there were so many stops along the way.

There’s this law called McKinney-Vento that means the school has to pay for transportation to keep you in the same school if you become homeless, so in the morning the school would send a taxi to pick me up, and in the afternoon I’d ride the bus back with all the other homeless kids. Even though school got out at 2:25 p.m., I didn’t get home until 6 p.m. because there were so many stops along the way.

When I got to high school, I knew that my goal was to make it through and graduate. My older brother didn’t graduate and didn’t get his GED for years. My older sister made it through high school but she didn’t go to college. So this was my chance to prove that I was different. I wanted to prove that I could. 

I was 16 when I finally found Cocoon House, and I wish I had found it sooner. It’s meant for people like me. They gave me a place to stay and people that I could count on. My mom had to sign papers to let me go live there; it made her sad but I think she understood. We had been in a domestic violence shelter, and then we were at the Everett Gospel Mission, but we were already getting kicked out of the Mission because my mom wasn’t following the rules. She was going to live with her boyfriend again, in a tent this time. One of the people at the Mission told us about Cocoon House, and even bought us bus tickets to get there.

Sometimes I think about my life as a “what if?” If I had stayed with my mom, I probably wouldn’t have graduated high school.

Now my goal is to graduate college, get a house and a steady teaching job. Because of my experience, I think I have something special to offer the kids.

When I was in third and fourth grade, I wished that somebody would see me and notice that something was going on and ask about it. When I’m teaching third and fourth grade, I can be the person who will.

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