“I Don’t Want to Live Like This Forever”: A 14-Year-Old’s Story of “Hidden Homelessness” Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

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September 8, 2020

Fourteen-year-old Kyah misses having a bed.

For the past year, she, her mother and her older sister have been living out of a single room in a relative’s house — experiencing what’s been called “hidden homelessness” in order to avoid entering the shelter system.

“I have to sleep on the floor, and my sister and my mom sleep on the bed,” Kyah says. She feels it’s the right thing to do, she says, “because my mom’s back is more fragile than mine.”

So each night, Kyah uses blankets to create a comfortable place to sleep on the carpet, and then folds them up and puts them away when morning comes.

“I really make this look like a little twin-size bed,” she says, flashing a smile as she demonstrates her nightly ritual.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, almost 12 million children in America were estimated to be living in poverty — a burden disproportionately borne by kids who are Black or Latino. Kyah is one of them. Her story unfolds in Growing Up Poor in America, a new FRONTLINE documentary that follows children in three families — one Black, one mixed-race and one white — in the battleground state of Ohio as they struggle to make ends meet.

That struggle has been heightened by the coronavirus. As the above clip from the documentary recounts, Kyah’s mom, Becky, was supposed to start a new job in March, but it fell through due to the pandemic. As schools close and Becky searches for work, her daughters are acutely aware of the challenges the family faces.

“I would say we were a poor family,” Kyah says, “because we really don’t have a lot of money at all.”

Many of their possessions are gone for good, auctioned off when Becky could no longer afford to make payments to the storage company that had been holding them. Now, “I live in a packed bag,” Kyah’s sister, Kelia, says.

The family’s story sheds light on the realities of “hidden homelessness” in the U.S., a phenomenon that’s difficult to measure — and sometimes, to detect from the outside at all.

“I’m homeless, I’m just not your typical what it looks like to be homeless, but I have no home,” Becky says. “I can’t provide a home for my children right now.”

Both she and her daughters hope that soon, that will change.

“I couldn’t imagine living like this forever, and I don’t want to live like this forever,” Kyah says.

For the full story, watch Growing Up Poor in America beginning Tues., Sept. 8. From director Jezza Neumann (who made 2012’s Poor Kids) and producer Lauren Santucci, the FRONTLINE documentary is  a powerful look at child poverty in America in the time of COVID-19 — told from the perspective of the children themselves. It will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 10/9c. The documentary is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America. 

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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