A young girl's journey out of homelessness

20-year-old Eunsoo Choi now has an apartment and a UW scholarship. "I can't say I'm fully out of homelessness," she says. But “now that I am stable, I want to help others and advocate for homeless youth.”
Eunsoo Choi

Eunsoo Choi Credit: Allyce Andrew

Eunsoo Choi is a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Washington. She’s studying human-centered design engineering. She shares an apartment in the U-District with her 19-year-old sister. Her life today appears typical. But the events that led Eunsoo to Seattle are anything but.

Eunsoo and her sister were born in Kansas City, Missouri, to Korean parents. The family returned to South Korea when Eunsoo was five. Her mother and father weren’t happy, but they stayed together “because of their culture,” she says. Even so, when Eunsoo was 8, her mother’s dissatisfaction with married life compelled her to leave her husband and take her daughters back to North America — this time to Canada. They eventually settled in Vancouver, BC.

“My mom always had depression and wasn’t mentally stable,” says Eunsoo. “It was hard for her to stay anywhere.” That restless nature would be a defining factor in the lives of Eunsoo and her sister. They didn’t linger long in Canada before moving south, first to Beaverton Oregon, then almost immediately to the other Vancouver, in Washington State. That’s when things began to turn sour.

In Canada, Eunsoo’s mother was hospitalized briefly for what doctors suspected might be ovarian cancer. Eunsoo’s mother moved the family before she could get proper treatment. After arriving in the U.S., her visa expired. Fear of deportation kept her away from hospitals and medical care. “She was scared that if she went to the emergency rooms she’d get caught,” recalls Eunsoo. “Every day was more pain for her.”

Her mother’s illness, depression and immigration status rendered her unemployable, so at age 15 Eunsoo began volunteering with church groups and at recreation centers, mostly as a way to ask the people there for help. Eventually, Eunsoo’s mother met a woman who specialized in running various scams on undocumented immigrants. The scam artist introduced Eunsoo’s mom to an immigration lawyer, whom she had met online. “My mom decided to marry him for [citizenship] status,” says Eunsoo. “That’s how we moved to Dallas.”

The immigration lawyer had three children from a previous marriage. Eunsoo’s mom became pregnant shortly after arriving in Texas. Their new stepdad didn’t see Eunsoo and her little sister as his responsibility. Their life in his home was stifling and emotionally abusive. “Whenever he came home, I had to stay in my room or else he would go crazy,” says Eunsoo.

Her mother, still struggling with depression, didn’t defend her daughters.  “She couldn't stand up for herself,” says Eunsoo. “She couldn’t stand up for us.”

Feeling unwanted and uncared for, Eunsoo moved out at age 16 and took her sister with her. The sisters packed their possessions into black garbage bags, and bit by bit moved out of their home and into a schoolmate’s SUV. “Most of our stuff was in her trunk,” says Eunsoo. “Before we went to school she would pick us up and help us get dressed in the car.”

“If this happened again, I wouldn’t be able to be so courageous,” says Eunsoo when asked how she managed to live like that at such a young age. “I was too little to even think about [the precariousness of the situation],” she continues. “It was day by day. We had to think about where we were eating.”

For the rest of Eunsoo’s freshman and sophomore year, the sisters surfed from couch to couch, often meeting their SUV friend before school to grab whatever they’d need for the day ahead. Eunsoo made some money tutoring younger students, but the sisters relied on the kindness of strangers. That is, until Eunsoo befriended a fellow high school student who was also living on her own and working as a go-go dancer. She offered Eunsoo a space in her apartment in exchange for babysitting.

The girl’s two other roommates were prostitutes. The babysitting entailed watching their four children when the roommates went out for the night. Eunsoo, out of options, took the job.


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