Youth homelessness: ‘I feel like no one really cares, I feel like it should be a bigger deal’

At the end of her junior year, Kristél Thornton was stressed; unlike her peers who were worried about finals and summer plans, Thornton was worried about where she was going to live during her senior year of high school.

Thornton was born in Colorado and lived there with her grandparents until she was 9 years old, at which point she and three her siblings began to live with her divorced parents.

“Since the time I was like nine, I had to raise my two brothers because my parents were separated,” she said. She and her siblings alternated weeks between their parents.

“We grew up really poor so we had no money to do anything,” Thornton said. 

Thornton said they barely saw their dad, so, in addition to contributing to the household income, she also played mom for her younger brothers, 

“I’d have to wake up at six in the morning to make sure the house was clean and my brothers went to school.”

Things weren’t much better the other weeks either. For the past five years, Thornton’s mom struggled with addiction to opioids and alcohol. “Me and my older sister basically had to raise our siblings,” Thornton said.

In the eighth grade, her mom moved the family.

 “We moved to Texas because my mom got a divorce and she met a new guy and his family lived in Texas,” Thornton said.

Shortly after the move, Thornton dropped out of school, “I dropped out my freshman year to raise my siblings. Before that we had to stay at a friend’s house to another friend’s house to another friend’s house,” she said.

Teen homelessness typically takes on the form of couch surfing at friend’s houses since the streets are not safe.

Because of her mom’s struggles with addiction, Thornton learned to not get too comfortable.

“Nothing really worked out,” she said.

The summer between her freshmen and sophomore year her mom moved the family to Oregon. Her mom had another baby, a girl, who lived in Texas with her dad after her mother and siblings moved.

“We moved out here with my grandparents while she went to rehab,” Thornton said.

Her mom began to do better and decided to move the family to Oregon permanently 

“Things were good for a while, she was saving up a bunch of money, she was going to get a house, everything was good,” Thornton said. For about a year they lived here peacefully, slowly building their lives back up.

After the death of Thornton’s uncle, the family found themselves in an all too familiar spot, motherless.   

“She would come home for maybe two days and then disappear for weeks at a time,” Thornton said. “We would get calls randomly ‘oh she’s in jail,’ so we’d have to come pick her up.”

“We were only supposed to be here for two months but I’ve almost been here for three years,” she added with a laugh.

When her mom fell off the wagon, Thornton and her siblings moved in with her grandparents.

“That wasn’t the best either,” she said. Though she quickly added, “Things could’ve been a lot worse.”

At the end of this past school year, Thornton’s grandparents insisted that her mom take responsibility for her children despite her continued drinking. She moved the family back to Texas.

Most of the family that is.

“I decided to stay out here because I knew if I went I wouldn’t be able to graduate,” she said. 

Only one person in her family has graduated high school, Thornton wants to be the second – a goal that proved to be harder than she expected when her grandparents moved to Colorado.

“Basically, I had 48 hours to figure out my entire life. I was only 17, I had no idea what to do,” she said.

She had to find a place to live, a job, and a plan for school or finish her senior year in Colorado.

“I was lucky to find my friend whose family is letting me stay there,” she said. The family agreed to let her live with them until graduation.

“Even though I’m not their actual child they’ve treated me a lot better than my mom has, ever,” she said.

Still, uncertainty is one of the few constants in her life.

“After [graduation], I’m not sure where to go,” she admitted, even though that obstacle is still too far off to require her immediate attention. 

For now, her focus is on grades and scholarships. Because of her lack of familial support and financial means, Thornton doesn’t think college is in her future. 

“College, I don’t really think is an option for me anymore because I don’t have money to go,” she said. “School is the only thing I’m relying on, to get good grades and get scholarships.” She didn’t sound hopeful.

That said, if she could go to college, she would want to be social worker or a nurse. She’s determined to use her experience for good.

“Even when the school found out about my situation, I know people who are in a similar situation, they don’t care,” she said. 

Repeatedly she said she doesn’t think the community cares enough about people in her situation. 

“I feel like no one really cares, I feel like it should be a bigger deal, even though my situation isn’t as bad as other peoples, there’s other people who’s situation is a lot worse and no one seems to acknowledge it.”

I know I’m lucky because I have a family who took me in, there’s so many people, especially at our school, who go through this all the time,” she said. 

Several times she mentioned her situation isn’t as bad as some others.

“There are people that live literally under bridges so I feel like it’s not that bad,” she joked while reiterating her gratitude for the family that took her in. 

Though Thornton is grateful for the people who supported her, she strongly feels that there should be more support for people in similar, or worse, situations.

“It should be a bigger deal, there should be more help, and I’m not talking about just me,” she said. “You have to figure out everything on your own and I feel like it shouldn’t be that way.”