Last in a seven-part in-print series
Camilla Garner says she spent most of the past four years without a home, including months at a time living with a group of homeless teens who panhandled and pooled their money at night for a hotel room.
Sleeping on floors in a variety places made studying tough, so Garner says she quit high school at 18. Then she got pregnant and had a baby seven months ago.
Garner admits feeling destined to fail at that point. Yet her life has taken an unexpectedly positive turn: She’s one of six homeless students from the Salvation Army Center of Hope who are collecting their high school diplomas this graduation season.
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That’s a record for the city’s largest emergency shelter for women and children. But experts are calling it encouraging news: It means teens are finishing high school despite weeks, months and even years without a stable home.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools report 263 seniors experienced homelessness during the past school year.
“People don’t know it, but there are a lot of teens out there on the streets,” says Garner, 21, who recently graduated from the Adult High School program at Central Piedmont Community College.
“There were 10 teens in my group, the youngest maybe 17. They became like my family. Some are still out there on the streets,” she says.
That includes the father of her 7-month-old daughter, Kaniya.
Garner says her mother died in 2010, and she considers Kaniya to be her only family. The two moved in February to the Center of Hope, which is home to 202 infants and youths, 149 of whom are students in area public schools. Nearly 60 are teens.
The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte says it has at least two teens living there, one of whom was graduating from Mallard Creek High on Friday. He’s 19 and will be enlisting in the Army. He even managed to go to the prom while living at the shelter, said Men’s Shelter Executive Director Carson Dean.
Deronda Metz, director of social services for Center of Hope, says the increase in teens is due in part to Charlotte’s increase in family homelessness, which is up 57 percent since 2009. Another factor is her decision to stop dividing families. Prior to 2011, beds were reserved for women and children only, requiring males over 14 to go to other youth shelter programs.
Among her biggest challenges, she says, is making sure the homeless students aren’t ridiculed by other kids at school. That’s why she forged a deal with CMS to have school buses stop a block down the road, out of view of the shelter’s main entrance.
“We don’t want these children to be picked on, which is one of the things that makes a child not want to show up for school,” Metz says.
“Unfortunately, kids at school do find out, and our kids get teased. ... We encourage them to go to school in spite of what other children say. We’re not always 100 percent effective.”
This year’s graduates including students from Myers Park High, Hawthorne High and Northwest Cabarrus High.
La’Quanshai Grant, 17, is the Cabarrus student. She moved to the shelter on Christmas Day with her disabled mother, Tarnisha, who says she is bipolar.
Grant tried to keep it a secret at school that her family had fallen on hard times, but she says fellow students began to notice her wearing the same clothes over and over. Some poked fun at her shoes, not realizing Grant had bigger problems.
“One boy overheard me talking on the phone about the shelter, and he told my friends,” Grant says. “When they asked me about needing help, I denied it. I told them ‘I’m doing good.’ Why? It’s embarrassing. I don’t want them looking down on me.”
Her grades stayed strong – A’s and B’s – but it wasn’t easy. Even the shelter’s staff admit the noise, the crowding and the rigid schedule is not easy for students. Privacy is at a minimum. And there are schedules for getting up, going to bed, eating, showering and washing clothes.
Her day typically began at 4 a.m., laying out clothes for her mother to wear that day. Then, at 6:15 a.m., Grant says she’d catch the school bus.
“There was no slacking off because my classes were core classes like math and science,” Grant says. “Almost every night when the dorm lights went out, I would go into the bathroom to study.”
Grant has not secured money for college yet, but she remains hopeful.
Rubeltine Smith, 19, is another of the center’s 2014 graduates, and she’s also looking for scholarship money. A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, she dreams of being a model and clothing designer.
Smith moved to Charlotte in June 2013 to live with her mother, who has been here nearly a decade. However, Smith says her mother was laid off soon after her arrival and they lost their home.
Mother and daughter moved to the shelter in April after selling most of their belongings.
“My mother is stressed out, and she’s struggling to find work,” said Smith, who is unconcerned about fellow students finding out where she lives. “If anything, they need to be grateful for what they got, because once it’s gone, it’s hard to get it back.”
Shelter officials say at least two of the six graduating students have so far found money for college, and one of them is single mom Camilla Garner.
She says it’s out of respect for her late mother, Deborah Garner, that she got a college loan to start classes at CPCC in August. Her goal is a degree in human services.
The Center of Hope is impressed enough with her ambition that it has enrolled Garner in a housing program, called SHIP, that will help pay her rent while she’s finishing school. She’ll be in that program for up to three years.
“My mother always told me that she wanted a diploma to put on her wall, and she didn’t care where I got it from: Just as long as I came home with a diploma,” Garner says. “I realized after I had my daughter why it was so important to my mom. I want a better life for my child.”