One Saturday, shy nine-year-old Lena paced outside my office door. I smiled and said hi as I entered and exited my office. Saturday afternoons at the Families Moving Forward Program Center are a blur of requests for laundry detergent, baby wipes and diapers, soap and shampoo for showers, the computer room to be opened, a bus card, directions to the center, you name it. So I thought Lena might want a book from my office or a board game from the back room. But she smiled and didn’t say a word as the hours passed.
As the normal chaos came to a steady lull mid-afternoon, Lena stood at my door and finally muttered, “Um...Mai Choua…can I talk to you?”
“Of course! Do you need me to open the door so you can get a book from the other office?” I asked, preparing to get out of my seat to fetch it.
“No.” She stood there, hands clasped together.
“Oh!” I was surprised and welcomed her to sit and talk. “What can I help you with, ma’am?”
I’ve enjoyed conversations with the children that reveal their insights and resiliency during their family’s homelessness. But I had never heard this from a child before: Lena asked, “Mai Choua, how do I find housing?”
I was taken aback at the seriousness of her question and felt equally the frustration in her quiet voice.
“Well…” I started, buying time to approach such a question, routine with the adults in the program. “There are a lot of different ways, Lena. Why do you ask?”
Her tone was thoughtful and careful. “My mom needs housing (long pause). They keep talking about finding housing (long pause). I want my mom to be happy. She cries because we don’t have a house.”
Lena’s mother and her five children, Lena being the oldest, had watched several families move in and out of the shelter program. Going on six months, her family’s search for housing was not easy because they simply didn’t have enough income. Under the radar Lena had watched her mom go from job interview to job interview and sit at the computer for hours doing house searches. Lena had pieced together how important housing is and had decided this day to take matters into her own hands by asking me.
I shut my office door, where Lena and I spent an hour talking. I explained that her mom knew that housing is important and that here at Families Moving Forward, we each have a role and we are all working toward making that happen for her family too. I acknowledged what a wonderful daughter she is to not only take care of her siblings, but that she wanted to make her mom happy. We talked about Lena’s role in the housing process, and how important it is for her to be nine-year-old Lena; in other words her job was to work hard in school, be her mom’s daughter and be that great big sister that her siblings look up to—everything she was already doing.
It’s true; homelessness affects everyone. Even little girls understand how important it is to find housing. Even little girls believe in home.