Homeless Teens: How This One Became A College Student
TEEN | By DaQuann Harrison
The first time I remember getting in trouble, I was 8 or 9. I had been playing around with matches in my basement, and then I brought them to school. I went to the bathroom, lit a paper towel on fire, and put it out. A teacher smelled the smoke and sent me to the principal’s office. The principal put me up for expulsion.
But I guess there’s more I haven’t told you about what was happening in my life.
I had to protect my mom a lot. She ended up with an abusive partner, and, as her son, I felt like I had to defend her. I would throw irons, beer bottles—whatever—at the man when he was hurting my mom. I would throw his clothes in the garbage. I killed his fish. I worried I would come home and find my mom dead.
I Was Homeless
We moved so many times. I can’t even remember the first time I was homeless. I slept in cars, motels, malls—wherever we could find shelter. My cousin would babysit, and he taught my sister and me how to steal food. We would have garbage bags in our pockets, and while our cousin would distract the owner, we would grab drinks, ice cream, gum, gummy bears, and chips. Ramen noodles, too—can’t forget those.
I was in survival mode back then. There was a beating—and molesting—by a family friend, but I wanted to keep the peace. Back then I didn’t tell anyone about the molesting, even when the bruises got worse and they took me to the hospital. Even when Child Protective Services was called.
About a month or so later, I got into a different school. I kept getting suspended left and right. Petty stuff.
After a few weeks, I was in the library and I tried to commit suicide. The teachers saw me trying to put pencils and stuff down my throat. I was haunted by what that man had done to me.
The next few years, I was going to school but kept getting suspensions. I was on probation. I kept moving around a lot. I begged my probation officer to send me to Juvie or the Youth Center. I would call her and tell her I was going to do something dumb. I didn’t see any hope. It was a safe place to stay. I heard the food was good.
When I was 16, I became a victim of bullying over a girl. I began to receive phone threats and house visits from the bullies. They even stole some of my belongings. It got worse, and one day I saw threats against me on social media. The pressure got so tough for me, I thought about suicide so I wouldn’t have to endure the pain and embarrassment.
I didn’t know what to do. So I grabbed my airsoft gun. I removed the air tank and clip because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was just bringing it to school as a scare tactic. I also took a kitchen knife. I left home not knowing if I was going to return.
I didn’t see my bullies that morning, but school found out about the weapons. I was arrested and taken into custody. The judge released me after three days and dropped the charges, but I went home to hear the news that I was facing permanent expulsion. After that, I emotionally broke down because of all the hard work I had put in for my education.
My probation officer referred me to an outstanding organization, The Student Advocacy Center. A mentor was assigned to me.
I was suspicious at first because I’m an independent person. But I’m glad I took that step because my mentor, Anell Eccleston, is truly the best thing that happened to me in a very, very long time. I believe we made an unbreakable bond, and that’s what I have been wanting all my life.
Anell met with me every week, sometimes multiple times a week. I can truly call him one of my top supporters. He never gave up on me. He helped with clothing, food, transportation, getting back into school, getting my school work done, graduating early, and applying to college. Just so much.
When I finally returned to high school, I had so many people nagging me: Anell, someone from the sheriff’s office, staff at other organizations who helped me, and a bunch of staff from a district where I wasn’t even a student. They drove me nuts. But I went to school.
The light went on for me, finally. In the end, I graduated early and went straight to college.
It takes a village. It takes love, hope, consistent persistence, and support for each student. We need relationships that last, and we need a lot of them. We, as a society, can’t give up on homeless teens like me.
DaQuann W. Harrison, 18, is a college student and national youth empowerment speaker. He believes in keeping the faith and never giving up, no matter the life circumstances.
Editors’ Note: In this section of the magazine, the parent perspective typically follows the teen perspective. Not every teen, though, has a parent who can contribute. Instead, we asked our expert to weigh in not only on what can help teens like DaQuann, but also how other—perhaps more stable—families can offer support to teens they know who struggle with heavy personal burdens and behavioral difficulties.
EXPERT | Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D.
I read DaQuann’s story with a tremendous amount of respect for the courage and bravery that he has shown through incredible adversity in his young life. First, I would like to thank DaQuann for sharing his story. It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and to his specific desire to live life well despite all the obstacles tragically placed in his path.
His story is also a demonstration of the power of human connections. We benefit when we have someone who believes in us—someone who cares about our very being. We all need mentors as we navigate our youth and teen years. Some of us are lucky to come by this naturally and have parents or guardians who are healthy enough (mentally and physically) to assume this role. Some, of course, are not.
If your teen has a friend who seems to lack a strong structure at home, consider reaching out. Invite this child for a meal, or to join you for a movie. Kids are often willing to “borrow” friends’ parents if they feel invited.
Helping Homeless Teens
If this teen in your family’s life needs additional mentors—and they may, if home is not a safe, stable place—you can also help by connecting this teen with other reliable adults. In DaQuann’s case, he was extremely fortunate to be paired with a mentor through his probation officer, a relationship that seems to have literally saved DaQuann’s life.
It needn’t wait until a probation officer enters the picture, though. Teachers, coaches, and parents can work to connect the teen with support in community-based organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as religious organizations and local colleges and schools. A teen in trouble does not typically have the bandwidth to seek out these resources alone; just looking into resources and helping to connect the teen can be a critically important support.
You see, DaQuann got it right when he said that it takes a village. Indeed, it does. There is probably not a person among us who is able to get through their life journey without at least one consistently loving and supportive person. Thank you, DaQuann and Anell, for illustrating the importance and necessity of mentors in our lives. Good luck and Godspeed as you continue your journey.