The hidden homeless of the Ivory Tower

“There was one rule in my father’s apartment: I could not have sex with anyone, at all, while I lived with him. Sex anywhere else was fine — as long as he didn’t know about it.”

Sitting on his couch in his Yale dorm room, Qiang Ye* ’08 continues matter-of-factly. “So I came home with this guy from [boarding] school who I had this huge crush on,” he says, “and we spent, like, four days having really intense sexual encounters … in my father’s home.”

“We tried to keep it on the DL, but we were pretty into each other,” Ye continues. After nearly a week of unusually long hugs, public hand-holding and sleeping in the same bed, Ye’s father became suspicious. When his friend left, Ye’s father asked him a simple question: Did you have sex with that young man?

“I’m not into lying,” Ye says, “especially to my parents.”

So he said yes.

“And then I realized — at that moment — that my father is a fundamentalist Christian,” he recalls five years later.

Although he tried, negotiation was fruitless. At one point, Ye suggested flattening the parent-child structure since he contributed to the payment of living expenses. His father, however, had none of it. Ye smiles ruefully, “The father-son hierarchy is determined by God, not by who pays rent.”

So, at the age of 17, Ye found himself in search of another place to live.

***

Among the privileged elite of Yale, Ye may seem anomalous. But he is, in fact, part of a small percentage of the student body that has flirted with homelessness — a situation perhaps unfathomable to the majority of the student body.

And because of the stigma attached to homelessness, few students are eager to share their experiences, even with their closest friends. For this article, all the once-homeless students — and the friends and family affiliated with them‚ asked to remain anonymous; their names have been changed so that their stories can be told.

Some, though, chose to write about them in their applications to Yale.

“It does come up,” Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel wrote in an e-mail, “but only very rarely.”

Like the rest of their classmates, these students deal with the stress of academics, athletics and a perpetually looming post-Yale future. But more so than most, they worry about where they will go when dorms close for the semester.

For Ye and other students like him, leaving Yale therefore means not just finding a way home, but finding home itself.

***

Caleb Lucas* ’10 drives a simple four-door sedan. It’s cheaper than an apartment and easier to move. Two weeks ago, he drove it halfway across the country — 16 hours — to see his little brother Micah*.

But Lucas never goes home to Michigan for more than a week during breaks; it’s just too much trouble, he says. When he is back, he usually crashes at his best friend’s apartment.

“It’s hard,” he admits, referring to his relationship with his parents. “I want to accept their apology. I want to be okay with them.”

Like Ye, Lucas was also 17 when he left his house with then-12-year-old Micah in tow.

He had been living in Detroit since he was 10 — ranked the most dangerous city in the United States in 2007 by the FBI’s crime statistics report — and, he explains, “it got to the point where it just wasn’t safe to be in my household.”

Strangers, he says, came in and out of their house at all hours because of lax security and, on one occasion, he was robbed in his own bedroom.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen to me when I went to sleep,” Lucas says. “And I damn sure didn’t want to have to sleep outside of my little brother’s room every night.”

At first, being on their own wasn’t that bad, Lucas says. Two of the day’s meals were provided at school, and they stayed with a family that was already housing one of Lucas’ friends, who was in a similar situation. Though he knew he needed to move, he still felt conflicted. “I was turning my back on my family, on my neighborhood,” he reveals, “and that’s one thing you don’t do. No matter what.”

Soon after they realized their sons were not returning, Lucas’ parents started calling. They threatened to call the police if Lucas did not bring his brother home immediately.

Because Lucas was still a minor, he could not fight his parents for legal custody of Micah. But he held his ground.

After some negotiation, he agreed to let Micah stay with his older sister, who was also living in Detroit. “I would never have done it if [Micah] hadn’t said, ‘I’m going to be safe. You take care of yourself.’ ”

***

As a teenager, Miles Marks* ’10 never got an allowance. He laughs, remembering his childhood, as he sits over breakfast: “I used to sell tea bags and tell people it was reefer.” He’s still chuckling as he recalls growing up in Chicago and “doing a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have been doing at that age.”

When Marks was eight, his parents sent him and his five-year-old sister to live separately with their maternal and paternal grandmothers, hoping they would be safer away from their rough neighborhood. Marks moved to another part of the city and his sister went to Missouri.

Marks’ grandmother died when he was 15, but he continued to live in her house with his two aunts. Before his grandmother’s death, his Aunt Linda* had started dating a man named Greg*, who his grandmother had never liked. Marks always thought it was because Greg was white, but after Greg and Linda got married and Greg moved in, Marks discovered the truth.

Marks says Greg was “loud and ignorant” and would start unnecessary fights with him. He would come into the living room and, Marks says, scream “ ‘Turn that f–king TV off!’ ” for no reason.

When Greg got physically abusive, Marks knew he had to leave.

“I want to get this right,” Marks says when asked about how much money he had when he left. “If I remember correctly, I had about three dollars worth of quarters in my coat pocket. I had about 20 singles, two twenties, and a hundred dollars my grandfather had given me.”

One hundred sixty three dollars.

***

“When I was born [my parents] had a yacht and two cats,” Ye says. “Then the yacht sank, and I got older.”

Ye’s parents divorced when he was five, and he and his older brother Huan* went to live with their mother in the suburbs of Boston.

But, he notes, living arrangements did not become problematic until he was 14 or 15. Around that time, his mother began seeing a man named Brad*. Although Ye was at boarding school at the time, the information his brother relayed made him uneasy.

Heated verbal fights between Huan and Brad turned physical time and time again and Brad had problems with gambling, Ye says, declining to elaborate further. Shortly after Brad moved in, Huan went to live with friends and Ye moved in with his father.

Ye was never formally asked to leave, so he stayed with his father for another three weeks after the sex confrontation with his friend from boarding school. But with his father’s constant insistence that he “reconsider [his] bad habit” — his decision to be with a man — Ye knew his father’s home was not the place he needed or wanted to be.

“It’s incredibly uncomfortable to live with someone who thinks very, very, very little of you,” Ye says, “It’s doable, but it’s miserable.”

“I think for him the most upsetting thing was his reaction to my reaction,” Ye’s father reflects. “Like, he had no idea I would have that kind of reaction. I just started to cry, I was so upset. I tried to think of what a good father does in that situation.”

He says he was most worried about the stigma Ye would face. “My biggest concern was if he had chosen this as a decision,” he says, “it would be very costly to him for the rest of his life.”

The ensuing argument, he says, “marked a point of departure that we’ve never broached again.”

***

“I mean, it’s scary to wake up and find bums outside your car, but it seems like people try to glamorize it when they do stuff like that,” Lucas says, referring to Tyra Banks’ undercover experience as a homeless person.

He finds the concept entirely ridiculous. “There was no tangible end for me. I had no idea how I would handle it mentally. Would I lose my damn mind? … I spent 48 hours in a car where I didn’t leave but to use the restroom.”

During the year and a half he was on his own and wasn’t staying with friends, Lucas estimates he spent three to four months living off and on in his car.

Logistically, at least, being an athlete made fulfilling some basic necessities easier, even in high school.

While he worked to pay for food, he showered at the gym and used the school’s laundry facilities to wash his clothes. His bonds with many members of the custodial staff allowed him to get away with being at school at odd hours.

“I know what it’s like to feel invisible, too,” he admits.

***

They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but it turns out Chicago is an insomniac, too. And for Marks, at least, that turned out to be a godsend. Both Kansas Fried Chicken and Carlo’s Pizza were 24-hour restaurants that doubled as Marks’ — and many others’ — sleeping quarters.

There, he finished the homework he didn’t get done at school and got paid back in pizza slices for making deliveries.

“I missed my grandmother’s cooking first off,” he says of being on his own.

He looks down at the table. “I just missed a sense of security. Where you don’t have to worry what you have to do to make it to the next day.”

***

Some of Ye’s friends find his gift-giving peculiar. He gave away shirts and pens, laundry detergent and photographs.

It’s more practical than anything, he says. For Ye, moving is difficult: First, because he doesn’t drive and relies on others to help him get his stuff around and, second, because there’s no single place to put it all.

Giving things away is a means of ensuring preservation of Ye’s possessions, especially of his art pieces. His recipients serve as micro museums for his work: “They can take care of things in a way that I can’t,” he says.

On the bookshelf in his dorm room, there are a couple novels and a quite a few textbooks, with the volumes totaling somewhere in the twenties. It’s his entire collection.

Almost everything he owns is in this room. Yet as he looks around, he says, “Everything here is replaceable.”

There are no art pieces he can’t recreate, and nothing he can’t buy again — even items of sentimental value.

“I could walk out of here right now and not look back,” he says.

And then Ye adds: “I can always take another picture of my brother.”

***

“As far as brushing my teeth, sometimes I didn’t. I chewed a lot of gum, Tic Tacs, stuff you can get from your friends.” Marks laughs. “I’m lucky I still have my teeth.”

Marks says keeping up appearances was particularly problematic at his exclusive prep school.

Like Lucas, Marks was also a varsity athlete, so he took his showers at school. He had three dress shirts, two pairs of slacks and one tie to get him through the week, and then washed them on the weekends at a local laundromat. Marks didn’t go to many dances or other school events that required cash. “Twenty dollars is a lot of money,” he says.

Now, Marks recognizes he probably should have explained his situation to his parents. “But,” he says, “I was 15 going on 16, I was like ‘I can do this, I can do this.’ ”

Marks told no one about his situation, except his two best friends and his headmaster. “I’ll always love Dr. Rutherford. When I explained to him my situation, he was like, you know, ‘Don’t worry about [the tuition], everything’s taken care of.’ ”

When asked if his headmaster had an obligation to report him to the authorities, Marks looks like he’d never considered the possibility. “I don’t know,” he ponders. “I think he knew that I’d be in a worse situation if he took his legal obligation seriously”.

***

Lucas didn’t like to be idle; he says it left him too much time to think about his situation. And when he lists his extracurricular activities, it’s hard to imagine how he’d have time to schedule a spare minute.

To pay for food, bills and his car, Lucas held down three jobs. He refereed basketball, worked construction, washed dishes and did all varieties of odd jobs.

He never stopped doing community service, either. He coached youth sports teams, organized Special Olympics events, tutored and mentored younger students and volunteered at a local soup kitchen. “Those were the kind of things that kept me sane,” he says. “When you’re homeless, you’re losing your f–king mind.”

***

Ye had a string of jobs when he was in high school. He worked for a title insurance company, interned for an Internet company and even tried his hand at selling airplane hangers — a “total fiasco,” he says.

After he moved out of his father’s apartment, Ye went to live with his Big Brother, Andrew*, from the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.

Andrew and his wife both work from home and currently have four children, so when he’s there, Ye does his best to help out around the house. He sweeps algae scum off the pool floor, helps Andrew with his projects and watches the kids on occasion.

But Ye acknowledges that life is not perfect. Like Lucas, he finds breaks from Yale stressful: “There’s never a guarantee that I’m going to have someplace to go.”

Even Ye’s mother recognizes the situation is not ideal. “I know he would like to have a place to call home, and we cannot provide that for him. It is clearly a loss. He experiences it a loss, and therefore I do too.” But, she says, “This cannot be helped right now.”

And so Ye is incredibly appreciative of Andrew and his family.

“They try to make me feel like I’m a family member, but it’s very clear to me that I’m not a family member. Even though they’re sweet and wonderful and would welcome me without question, I know it’s difficult for them to have me there. Sometimes there’s tension, like when I eat all of their white fish salad,” which he did over this past break.

But, he says, “The self-awareness of the strain you put on others is a part of growing up.”

***

Lucas was surprised by how many people offered him support. “There weren’t many people who didn’t open up their doors [or pocketbooks] to me,” he says, citing high-school alumni, old middle-school teachers and casual friends as the generous types.

He says several families treated him like one of their own children. “I was like, ‘Damn! Like for real?’ I’d been skeptical of rich people my whole life, but a lot of rich people were really, really good to me.” But, like Ye, Lucas was aware of the burden he laid on the families, so he never stayed in any one place for longer than three or four weeks.

When Lucas, a recruited athlete, came to Yale, he brought a lot of his insecurities with him.

“When somebody looked at me a certain way or disrespected me and I would say, ‘Is this because you don’t think I’m good enough? Like, I’m not supposed to be here? You don’t do that to people where I’m from, now let me show you what that means.’ ”

He says getting over his preconceived stereotypes has been a large part of his maturation, and is still an issue for him, but he attributes a lot of his growth to the presence of cultural groups on campus.

Today, he says, his fighting is reduced to instances of personal attacks. “I can’t be that way,” says as he shakes his head, “The one thing different about here is I’ve got a lot more to lose.”

***

It takes nine e-mails, 11 text messages and over a week to get Ye, Lucas and Marks in the same room at the same time.

The three get on the subject of service, to which all are deeply committed. “It really makes sense to us,” says Ye, who does long-distance mentoring and is working at a camp for at-risk teens this summer.

Lucas, who, oddly enough, was looking into that same organization, also mentors and has long-term plans for teaching, enrolling in law school and going back to Detroit to start his own non-profit agency. “Nobody’s getting out,” he says of his neighborhood — and he’s ready to change that. “If I’m not helping anybody through my struggles,” he says, “then I’m just being selfish.”

Michael*, one of Lucas’ closest friends on campus and the only one who knows about his past, says Lucas is nothing short of driven.

“He definitely deals with adversity by trying to make things better for other people in his situation,” Michael says.

But Michael sees that the past is still salient for Lucas: It’s “a past that he’s not moving on from because it’s still happening.” But, Michael says, you won’t see it change Lucas’ outward demeanor. “[Most people] don’t see the Lucas that goes home,” Michael says, “and doesn’t have a home to go back to” — or the Lucas who struggles to balance life as a full-time student and athlete while working 25 hours a week to help pay his brother’s tuition. “I have [him] as an inspiration,” Michael says.

Right now, Marks is focused on getting himself into law school and economically settled so he can offer more of the internship and funding opportunities to underprivileged youth, for which he himself has been incredibly grateful.

And for the time being, Lucas, Marks and Ye all seem to be in good places.

***

During his junior year of high school, Marks’ parents bought a house and brought him and his sister back to live with them. The transition was rough, he says. “I stayed out a lot, because I had gotten used to a lot of independence.” He remained angry with them for sending him away when, in his eyes, they could still take care of him. He later learned that his mother had suffered a nervous breakdown and that his parents needed time to sort things out. Marks has been back with his nuclear family for three years now.

“They’re great. I love them. They love me,” he laughs, “I hope.”

Lucas’ family is back together and his parents are doing well, but he’s not ready to forgive them just yet. “Until I can get over all of this myself,” he says, “I don’t owe them anything.”

Despite the challenges, Ye says his nomadic life style “doesn’t suck. It’s actually, like, really nice.” He enjoys the freedom of travelling and says his decision not to live with his parents has more to do with personal preferences than anything else.

Ye’s father has personal preferences. too, but, he says, “I don’t love him any less. I’d be the first to protect [him] in any way I could.” And although his father now welcomes Ye into his home, Ye says his father’s actions are “too little, too late, and I am not having it.”

And the situation with his mother “has evolved from a probably-shouldn’t-because-it’s-risky to an absolutely-cannot.”

“He does [his] best. He keeps himself surrounded by dear people,” Ye’s mother says.

“The alternative is not so bad,” she adds. “He has responded pretty well.”

And Ye has been lucky, “There hasn’t been a time in my life where I haven’t had a place that’s comfortable and safe to go,” he says. “I’ve just had to do a little bit of shuffling around to find [it].”

And as far as comfortable living goes, Yale is treating all of us pretty nicely.

Lucas looks up at the ceiling, “I mean,” he says, “there’s a f–king chandelier here.”

*Name has been changed to protect this person’s identity.

Comments

  • New Haven Resident

    Remarkable story. Well done!

  • Anonymous

    Great article. Well-written and well-sourced.

  • '11

    agreed - very interesting and relevant

  • A reader

    Great article--one of the best I've seen in the YDN this year. I liked how you chose students from different backgrounds to get different angles on the situation and avoid perpetuating stereotypes about how only certain kinds of people are homeless.

  • Ruth

    Well done, Sibongile! Great article and kudos to these men who have faced life so bravely!

  • Duzi

    This is a brilliant article, moving, and inspiring. I can't wait to read more from you.

  • Anonymous

    i'm impressed by the sourcing, not the writing. a little overdramatic in tone.

  • m-berg

    Blows my preconceptions of yalies out of the water

  • Anonymous

    thank you for this. you can add me as a fourth anonymous yalie who scrambles every break to find a place to live. as much as i'd like to complain about feeling self-conscious around friends and suitemates born with silver spoons in their mouths, and talk about how much harder it is to turn my back on i-banking in favor of a career in non-profits, i really can't complain. i'm just grateful. the world isn't a level playing field, but the yale adcom definitely made it a lot more level for me.

  • Anonymous

    GREAT ARTICLE!!!!

    Finally something with some substance…

    Ye, however, seems like an impostor - more of a rich kid who just didnt want to live at home while his father had a very sane and rational reaction for any parent whose child is openly having sex in their home (gay OR straight).

    also " “They try to make me feel like I’m a family member, but it’s very clear to me that I’m not a family member. Even though they’re sweet and wonderful and would welcome me without question, I know it’s difficult for them to have me there. Sometimes there’s tension, like when I eat all of their white fish salad,” which he did over this past break." -- How horrible for you…

  • DCHeretic

    There was a period in my childhood when my family was homeless. It was terrifying. I was 8-9 years old at the time and my mother, brother, and I had to sleep on the floor of friends' and relatives' homes and apartments. We shuttled from one place to another and occasionally endured separation when we could not find someone to take all of us in.

    I have never forgotten that year and the two years of poverty that followed. I look back on those years of fear and shame and then reflect that nine years later I was a freshman at Yale. That is what makes me a true believer in the American dream.

    An Alum
    Class of 1995

  • Anonymous

    Yet another--happens all the time, not really a big deal.

    My deans looked the other way when I just sorta…stayed (over winter break). Summers were spent "housesitting" for frats. Attics at Yale are great, too, as was the "secret space" behind the law school auditorium.

    Oh yes, it can be done!

  • SM ' 98

    So… how do they pay for Yale?

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article.

    Although I don't want to sound offensive, #10 might be on to something. Ye is not an impostor, but his situation was definitely not as dire as the other students' situations.

    Also, I think the overall tone of these students implies that if you weren't homeless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, which is a bad assumption. Most Yalies come from pretty humble backgrounds even if they weren't homeless. In fact, I think few Yalies who are in fact wealthy are overtly showy about their wealth or look down at others who don't have money. Yale's culture is open to diversity, and this article just shows yet another dimension of the diversity that makes this college such a great place.

  • Anonymous (#12)

    To #13

    Paying for Yale came first, and included private negotiations with the financial aid office, HUGE loans (some at govt rates, some at Yale's private rates, some at market rates, some at credit-card rates…). That leaves you so tapped out that paying for housing becomes impossible.

    Believe me, *I* for one am not whining--Not. At. All. However, I *do* find it amusing when I tell my Yale tale o woe, that folks immediate response is "no you werent'! You were NOT homeless!"

    So… what is the difference? Is it qualitative? Is it because I did not let my lodging dictate my life (i.e., I did not become a rummy on the corner)? Is it because I eventually made good, paid my debts, and entered respectable society? Is it because, while psychologically wearing, it presented more of an "adventure" than a "dead end"?

    Is "homelessness" a physical condition, a state of mind, or an expression of future prospects? I myself wonder sometimes…

    I remain ever grateful to Yale--and the faculty, staff, and students that helped me (or put up with me…).

    Oh yah, the stories I could tell!

  • BSnyder

    In reply to SM '98…thank GOD that admission to Yale is Merit based and need blind…and recent changes to expand the socio-economic base at the Ivy League elite, Yale will make sure anyone who is accepted on merit attends. A great blessing for so many students and potential leaders. Amazing article!! A view of Yale I think more high school kids need to see….so they can see they can do it too!! Great job!

  • Anonymous

    To #13 - Yale is MORE than generous with financial aid.

  • Anonymous

    to #7 - how is it overdramatic? as far as I'm concerned, the writing and the sourcing is fabulous. excellent work - first time I've read journalism as a work of art on YDN.

  • Anonymous

    #18 - clearly you need to read more of the articles - and their comments

  • NSWP

    Homeless are primarily non White. I wonder , if their low IQ has something to do with it.