Makayla Sanders waited on the sidewalk outside of her new school, looking for the big white van that would take her home.
But her home was not a cozy house or even a familiar apartment. Makayla lived in a large open room with mattresses lining the floor. Pedophiles, drunks, junkies, and desperate souls were among the hundreds of people who shared their home with Makayla, inside a public shelter on the West Side.
Makayla is one of 9,000 homeless children enrolled in Chicago Public Schools. These children face many obstacles because they not only move from home to home, but they also often change from school to school.
Since her family’s home burned down in 2003, Makayla has changed schools four times. One particularly sad occasion was on her recent 11th birthday when she had to transfer schools and leave one of her favorite teachers.
Even before the fire, Makayla and her siblings had a tough life. They grew up with a poor, alcoholic single mother and lived in relatives’ homes or shelters their entire lives. They had no money and no real sense of stability.
“I would buy the cheapest diapers and risk their little booties getting a rash, just so I could buy some beer,” said Sanders.
In the first shelter the Sanders family occupied, there was row after row of one-inch thick mattresses thrown onto the dusty wooden floor for strange men, troubled souls, and the Sanders family to share.
The Sanders children said the first shelter was not ideal. But after an electrical fire in 2003 destroyed their grandmother’s house where they had lived most of their lives, Lisa Sanders and her six children just needed somewhere to sleep and stay warm.
The constant shuttling has forced the children to cope with life.
“Just not having their basic needs met, they’re stronger,” Lisa said about her six children, the oldest 18 and the youngest five suffering from fetal alcohol affects.
“They are kids, but they have a stronger maturity.”
In 2004 the Sanders moved from a shelter on the West Side to one on the South Side, but Sanders did not want her children to have to change schools along with changing their residence. So she woke up all six children at 4:30 in the morning in order to get them to school on the West Side by a quarter to 8.
“It was tough, but Makayla would cry a lot when she had to change schools,” said Lisa, so the family endured the long commute in an attempt to dodge another transfer.
But the more than two-hour train ride each day wore on the Sanders, and eventually Makayla transferred to a school on the South Side.
Makayla said the hardest part about changing schools was meeting new people and trying to make friends. She did not take the regular school bus to school. She took a van with the name of the shelter on its side, so eventually her peers caught on and found out she was homeless.
Homeless children must fill out special paper work in the front office of their schools in order to get extra fees waved for field trips, lunches, and other additional costs. Homeless youth do not have the money for new clothes and cannot always afford to do their laundry each week. For these reasons they were often easily identifiable and ridiculed by peers.
Makayla said she became friends with the other poor children because the wealthier children would not allow her to associate with them on the playground.
“We (the poor kids) would just do our own thing and hang out with each other, but it kind of made me sad,” she said.
Makayla had always been an honor roll student. But the difficult adjustment to shelter life and relentless teasing endured from classmates caused her grades to slip. As a remedy, her mother sent her to live with her grandmother.
Makayla returned to the shelter to visit the rest of her siblings and her mother, but she said she was initially nervous about how her family would react to her after having left them.
“We were excited to get to talk and see each other, and when we talked they weren’t mad at me, so I didn’t feel guilty,” Makayla said. “I felt like they had gone through more stuff than me. I went through a lot too, but not as much as them.”
The Sanders children have four different fathers. They survived financially due to child support checks from their fathers and gifts from whomever their mother was dating. All the Sanders children know what it’s like to be an outsider. They could not invite friends over to play at the shelter, and were rarely, if ever, invited to go to their peers’ houses. When other children threw birthday parties, the Sanders were not invited.
The shelters prohibit the children from inviting outside guests into the facilities and require that a guardian accompany children in the shelters at all times. Children had to be chaperoned in order to keep them safe. Makayla, however, said sometimes strange men would still find ways to approach her and her siblings.
She said one man bought her sister a gold necklace and another came up behind her oldest sister and touched her. Luckily, Makayla’s mom was close enough to intervene, and she got one of the men kicked out of the shelter.
Life inside what supposedly was a safe haven for these displaced youth was not always secure. Predators often targeted children, who had to be together constantly to discourage attacks.
On top of it all, after 20 years of drinking, their mother was trying hard to stay sober, having spent a year in treatment. Lisa Sanders, 36, had to face her new reality.
“It was like having sextuplets all at once when I became sober,” she said.
Lisa had to start from the beginning with each of her children and try to mend wounds from the past -or at least help them heal. The Sanders children said life in the shelters was often chaotic, but it was nothing compared to life with an alcoholic mother.
“When she was drinking, I didn’t want to be home with my mom,” said Makayla, “so the shelter was okay because at least mom was not drinking.”
The Sanders children are once again living in their grandmother’s house on the West Side. Still, they live in a reality where returning to a shelter could be imminent.
“If I have to go back, I’ll just go back,” said Makayla fearlessly. “I’ve been there already now.”