Homeless teen shares her story

Graduation day
Valencia McMurray graduated last Saturday from North Community High School in Minneapolis. It's a remarkable feat given that Valencia has been living on her own in a homeless shelter for more than a year.
Photo courtesy of Valencia McMurray

By: Valencia McMurray
Minnesota Public Radio

Minneapolis - The Minneapolis Public Schools counted 5,500 homeless children in the district last year.

One of those students is Valencia McMurray, who graduated last Saturday from North High School in Minneapolis. She tells the story of her struggle to stay in school and graduate while living on her own.

With staff from The Bridge
Valencia McMurray poses with staff from The Bridge, a homeless shelter for teens in Minneapolis. She's been living at The Bridge for the past year.
Photo courtesy of Valencia McMurray

I've been on my own since 10th grade, some months before my mom moved to Oklahoma to take care of my grandmother. My dad lives in Wisconsin and I don't exactly know him.

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After my mom left, I shared an apartment with one of my four siblings in North Minneapolis. My brother and I both worked at Burger King to pay the rent.

A bunch of his friends moved in and next thing I knew, he lost his job and I was trying to support all these adults. I couldn't do it. This is where my homelessness began.

Listen to Valencia McMurray's audio diary of being a homeless teenager.

I ended up couch-hopping, staying at friends' places. I was missing a lot of school. My Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher Mr. Heegard could tell something was wrong.

"You would disappear for a week and I wouldn't know where you were. There was no way to get ahold of you. I started investigating. I don't think you were telling too many people," said Mr. Heegard.

Keeps track of homeless kids
Elizabeth Hinz keeps track of homeless students in Minneapolis schools. Hinz trains teachers and school staff, even custodians, to be alert to signs of homelessness.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I hadn't. I had trusted only two friends at school with my secret. One day after class, Mr. Heegard asked to see me. He asked what was going on. At first I said "nothing."

"You know, I think I had to tell you where you could go with your education. What you were capable of," said Mr. Heegard. "I knew it was just a matter of getting a break."

The school social worker found space for me at The Bridge, an emergency shelter for teens in South Minneapolis. I stayed there for three weeks before going to another shelter. For the last nine months I've been living in The Bridge's transitional housing program.

There are a lot of other kids in my situation.

Elizabeth Hinz trains teachers and school staff -- even custodians -- in the Minneapolis Public Schools to be alert to signs of homelessness. She's the district liaison for homeless and highly mobile students.

Valencia McMurray
Valencia McMurray, 18, has spent nearly two years living on her own -- both her parents live outside Minnesota. She recently graduated from Minneapolis North High School, and is headed to Augsburg College in the fall.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I tell her at North High, I think my teachers did a pretty good job picking up on my situation. I was missing a lot of school. I wasn't really doing my homework as much as I was before and my grades were slipping.

"Some of the other clues are kids who are exhausted," said Hinz. "It might be wearing the same clothes a number of days in row or looking disheveled. It might be being in the building but not in class, hanging out in locker room or just some other quiet corner."

Hinz explains federal law requires public schools identify and educate homeless children. She shows me a chart of how homeless kids perform on standardized tests. Two-thirds are below grade-level. That's one of the impressions about homeless kids I'm out to disprove. Over the years, I've been in six Advanced Placement classes.

But it's been hard to keep myself motivated, to get up in the morning, to go to school and to do my homework.

When you're homeless, the only thing you have are endless days.

Valencia and her sister
Valencia McMurray, right, with her older sister Victoria.
Photo courtesy of Valencia McMurray

My friends and I come down to Hennepin Avenue where all the police hang out which is why I hate it. But there's a lot of stuff going on down here so I can't blame them. I got picked up on a curfew violation. I had to do community service I raking leaves. It wasn't so bad.

I got in trouble again for curfew and ended up having to shovel snow. That was the worst. I would have rather raked some leaves.

My favorite place to kill time is Barnes & Noble. They never kick you out. I used to try to talk my friends into going with me to Barnes & Noble so I could read, but they never wanted to go. They were always too loud. We'd end up leaving.

All I have are words. I write poetry.

Mine to hold
A jungle made with my mind
A web
And I am the spider injecting venom into those who get too close.
I get nervous and my fear makes me attack those who get too near.
My fear
Is that my trusted words will be stolen.
I was made to share words,
But these words would crush the world that I'm holding.

I've never told a guy I've dated that I am homeless. They never ask. All I say is I don't live with my parents. That's what I tell people at school. I don't feel like that should be my opener when meeting people. Some people don't know how to deal with it.

I have a friend, a fellow poet, who also lives at The Bridge. I can't name her because of The Bridge's confidentiality rules. She says she's careful who she tells too.

"Nobody knows I am [homeless] unless I tell them," said my friend. "Just because you're from a certain place doesn't make you who you are. I'm not where I'm from, but where I'm from made me who I am."

We'll be leaving The Bridge this fall. We're both going to Augsburg College.

My efforts to stay in school paid off with a four-year scholarship. So for the next four years, I know where my home will be.