I (Allison) am a grade eight student in the Challenge program at Calvin Park Public School. I wrote this story for a project called Challenge for Change which is meant to raise awareness for a global issue. My story is about two girls, one wealthy and one poor, who meet at a homeless shelter. Will their different backgrounds keep them apart, or bring them together?
It is the first of December. The sidewalks are topped with a fresh foot of snow like thick vanilla icing topping a cupcake. The trees are virtually bare except for the glistening sticks of ice hanging down from the branches. Strings of coloured lights wind around houses, lighting them with dim glows. The pitch black sky envelopes the white scene, not taking away from its beauty. I would love the wintry weather if I wasn’t stuck out in it all the time.
I am standing on a corner, leaning against the graffiti-covered wall of a convenience store. My feet dig into the otherwise undisturbed snow, making a satisfying crunch. A sudden gust makes me shiver. It’s not all that cold, but my jacket is worn and frayed, threads dangling from it, and a good-sized hole is forming near the bottom. I make a mental note to ask Mom for a new winter coat. And then I remember–she can’t afford it.
I finger my fraying jacket and stare down at the weeds poking out of the snow. They look like skinny fingers clawing their way out of a pit. A pit of poverty.
Suddenly, clumps of snow fly onto my ratty jeans and a maniacal laugh rents the air. I glance up and see not a monster, but my younger sister, Allie, flinging herself through the air. She tackles me, and we both go down in a tangle of arms and legs. Though being homeless has sapped my energy, it hasn’t done the same for Allie’s.
I get up and with a couple of quick flicks brush the snow from my jeans and my stinging eyes. Allie’s still clutching my jacket as if letting go would mean falling to her death. "C’mon, Rachel. Mom found a shelter for us. Let’s go."
"Can’t I just stay here a little bit longer?" I snap. "I need some time to myself."
"Please?" Allie begs, her fist closing around a handful of my jacket. "It’s cold."
I look into her eyes, blue as the sea, and for the first time see the sadness in them. She may act the same as before, but losing her home has affected her just as much as everyone else. My heart softens suddenly. "Oh, all right."
Allie leads me down one snowy block after another. In some houses, Christmas trees have already been put up, weighed down with lights and ornaments. They seem to be laughing at us, like "Ha-ha, we have a warm place to stay and you don’t." The funny (well, not really funny) thing is, just a year ago, we were the ones showing off the decorated Christmas tree in a corner of our home. We were the happy, content ones.
We owned a respectable two-story house on a little cul-de-sac just off Oak Street. Me, Allie, and our older brother Josh had our own rooms and almost everything we needed or wanted. We went to a public school just a few minutes away from our home. I had a lot of friends, got good grades and played soccer and basketball. My biggest troubles were too much homework and not being allowed to have a cell phone. Life was almost perfect–until the fighting started.
I don’t know what fueled the tension between my parents, but suddenly, they started picking on each other for just about everything–from my dad coming home from work late to my mom buying too cheap a birthday gift for my dad. The fights were loud and violent, with broken dishes and rough slaps. After a larger fight, they wouldn’t speak to each other for days, communicating only with sharp glares.
They seemed to think that the constant unfriendly air didn’t affect us kids at all, but in truth it did. Allie would hide under her bed when the arguing began, clutching her ears and moaning fearfully. Josh would lock himself up in his room for days on end, playing loud heavy metal music to drown out the sounds from downstairs. I think I changed the most, though. I couldn’t sleep at night, either because of the shrieks filling the air or from my constant worries about what things would be like tomorrow. That made me tired all the time and unable to concentrate on my schoolwork. My grades slipped, I was grouchy and irritable with my friends, and I got in trouble with my coaches and teachers all the time. I was falling apart.
I was actually kind of relieved when I saw my dad cramming clothes and cans of food into his suitcase one evening. He had been threatening to walk out on us for a couple of weeks, and after a particularly vicious fight with my mom (I can’t remember what it was about) he was keeping his word. I would miss him deeply, but I thought that with him gone the fighting would stop and life would return to normal. But I was only one-half right. The fighting did stop, but life fell even farther away from normal than before.
We had already started to lose money with my dad’s departure. And when the restaurant Mom worked as a waitress at closed, we had no income coming in. We began receiving notices in the mail about paying our bills. The notices grew more and more threatening. One day, I came home to find all our stuff--furniture, food, clothing–scattered on the sidewalk like debris from a storm. Mom and Allie were sitting on the curb, clutching each other tightly and sobbing. Josh paced back and forth, a distraught look on his face. I stopped in my tracks, confused.
Mom told me through her tears that we had been evicted from our house. At first I couldn’t believe her. I knew we were having money problems, that Mom couldn’t pay the bills, but eviction? I thought that only happened in books about poor people.
But it was very real, and now we were the poor people. We didn’t have enough money to rent even the cheapest apartment, nor did we have anyone relatives nearby whom we could live with. Our only hope was to bounce from shelter to shelter. Almost every day we stayed at a new place. We kids had to leave school because the teasing and hostile stares got too bad. Mom went looking for work every day but was unable to find a new job. The minuscule amount of money she made from begging was only enough to keep us alive. It was hopeless.
I realize with a start that I’ve stopped, lost in thought. The sidewalk I’m standing on has been plowed, but a few tiny dots stain it. I stroke my cheek and notice that it is wet.
I trudge after Allie to a rundown building with the red painted words "Oak Street Homeless Shelter" peeling off the front wall. I peep through a small barred window and see a damp and dingy room with a lightbulb dangling from a narrow thread in the centre. It is crowded with people and sleeping bags. I notice Mom and Josh squished into a corner. When we enter, Mom waves us over with a limp hand. This is known as the worst homeless shelter in our town. Mom always swore she’d never take us here if she could help it. I guess she couldn’t help it.
I push past a man in a wheelchair and a woman carrying a screaming baby wrapped in a ratty dishtowel to rejoin my family. I’ve heard that it’s never so bad that it can’t get worse, but looking around me, it’s hard to believe.
Come back tomorrow and read Chapter 2!