Essay: At 16, My Dad And I Were Evicted And Homeless In LA
This following story was originally performed live as part of KPCC's live storytelling series, Unheard LA. Each show features a curated lineup of real people sharing true stories of life here in Southern California. You can RSVP for the next show here.
A week before Thanksgiving in November 2007, I stared dumbly at the barren room. Our dining table was dismantled, its accompanying chairs lined up against walls devoid of family pictures and once-beloved bookcases. This year, there would be no handmade stuffing to prepare and no friends to have over.
Every instinct I possessed screamed, "This isn't right!." How was I not dreaming?
The news said so. The housing bubble collapsed. Development and architecture fields were the first areas hit. Work for my dad — an architectural draftsman — soon evaporated. He worked briefly at a supermarket, busing carts and stocking produce. Then borrowed. Then budgeted. Then the pink notices on our door appeared: PAY OR QUIT.
Another week in, we knew we didn't have money for upcoming attorney fees. We got packing. To where? I was 16. I didn't know. We had no other home.
Dad barked marching orders around his cigarette and loaded a record-packed case into my hands. My dad loves his music. I had the bragging rights of "growing up in a giant iPod with primordial CDs" (read: records). But not anymore. Just one week before, Dad's Victrola, his favorite fixture, had been given away with some accompanying Blue Jay records. He wasn't ready to part with the forty-fives or LPs yet. So, completely on autopilot, I followed him out of the apartment and down to the garage to load up more boxes.
Even when I was packing all my possessions into box after box, it didn't feel like it was happening to us. Or happening to me. It was a surreal experience, like I was storing away all these belongings for some pharaoh's afterlife or someone who had passed away. I was packing for someone other than myself. Some other dying girl.
I won't forget that whole hectic month leading up to our eviction. I would walk home from school almost every day, and I'd try to memorize every step. When this was finished, memories would be all I could claim of home. Because really you end up missing the littlest things. I'd never get to walk home with my friends again after school. I wasn't sure how much longer I'd be going to the same school. I'd never get that same view from my window again. I had to trash my glow-in-the-dark stars and handmade mobile. I remember pacing the short 15 feet from the television to the end of the dining area, declaring that so long as this was my home I would not forget any of it. These were little things, but they were mine. At least until the afternoon of our last day.
At one o'clock, my adrenaline gave out after a whole morning of worrying and just a few hours of sleep. So, I laid down on the bed to close my eyes for a bit. The slamming of a fist on the door made my eyes snap open wide and I found a damp spot of drool. The clock read 1:15. The pounding sounded louder. My father opened the door to two police officers.
The first cop asked us what we were still doing here. I wanted to say, "We live here!" But according to the paper with the bright red print in his hand we didn't. We had to leave. Order from on high.
My dad wanted to get the duffle bag we had prepped with basic necessities. The officer tried to follow him down the hall. But it was a tiny hallway and, with my bulky backpack, I got in the way. As the policeman shoved past me, I still remember his exact words: "Excuse me, ma'am."
Ma'am? Ma'am? I was only 16! I wasn't even legal yet. I couldn't even vote to change the stupid policy that says I have to leave the only home I've ever known. Ma'am? But when people hear the word "homeless," they don't see children. And no one saw me.
In less than a minute, my dad and I were forced out the door. Our locks changed in front of us, my family didn't belong anywhere. But in the ancient, rickety Pontiac Bonneville, my dad looked over at me with a wry smile.
"Feels good to be free, doesn't it, kid?" he said. At first I gaped at him. I had just joined the ranks of the 63,000 homeless children in Los Angeles County. And my dad, my foundation, was talking about freedom when we didn't have much choice in getting to go or stay.
But, as my dad would say: In these situations, you can laugh or you can cry.
Well, it feels pretty good to laugh.
Angela M. Sanchez went on to complete her bachelor's and master's degrees at UCLA. She now serves on the board of directors for School on Wheels, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides academic support to K-12 students experiencing homelessness. She is also the author of a children's picture book about family homelessness and single-parenthood. Follow her on Twitter @_AngelaMSanchez.
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