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A young girl’s journey out of homelessness

Eunsoo Choi Credit: 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.

Luckily, her little sister was staying with friends at the time. A few weeks later, after an especially profitable night, Eunsoo’s go-go dancer friend bought Eunsoo a plane ticket back to Vancouver, WA. Eunsoo fled Texas, leaving her sister behind. And this is where her story starts to turn around.

Back in Vancouver, Eunsoo, now a high school junior, connected with social workers and school counselors who helped her get school supplies, meals and more stable temporary housing. She continued to tutor and got jobs at Target and at a shoe store. It was hard but things were looking up. “I could save for college,” she says.

Eunsoo discovered, applied for and received the Horatio Alger and LeTendre scholarships. Through one of the scholarship committees, she met a Microsoft employee who lived in Bellevue. He encouraged her to move north, and helped her find temporary housing.

The scholarships also put Eunsoo on Melinda Dyer’s radar. Dyer oversees the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act in Washington State. She told Betty Takahashi (below), homeless youth liaison for the Bellevue school district, about Eunsoo. “She had a lot of help [getting to college],” says Takahashi, “so the goal was to make sure she stayed in school and graduated.”

Takahashi placed Eunsoo – and her sister, who had joined her in Washington – with a family. She helped Eunsoo register for classes and found her a therapist. The new life wasn’t perfect. Issues with the foster family forced the girls to move again. But in Bellevue Eunsoo found something precious: a future. She was accepted to the UW, and received a bevy of state and federal scholarships to help pay for it.

Eunsoo’s success is inspiring, but also anomalous. “We don’t have a system to take care of children when the parents are unwilling or unable to take care of them,” says Takahashi. “I wish there were more places available, home settings, where we could take these children and give them a more normal life.”

Anthon Smith is the executive director for Seattle Education Access (SEA), which is trying to build a piece of the support system Takahashi is talking about. YEA uses an extensive network — of community college GED programs, youth shelters, school counselors, etc. — to locate at-risk youth like Eunsoo, who want to pursue their education. “We try to partner with every agency that meets young people where they’re at,” says Smith.

SEA offers these students, ages 16 to 29, a phalanx of educational support, including help applying to college and for financial aid and scholarships. The organizations helps kids “piece it all together,” explains Smith. “Kind of like a parent would.”

SEA served 700 kids last year. Smith figures there are tens of thousands of young people in the region who would benefit from the services. In King County alone, some 3,000 students drop out of high school each year. Many, says Smith, do so because of problems with housing and a lack of support from the adults in their lives.

Katara Jordan is an attorney for the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services. She works directly on issues related to the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, which requires every school district in the country to appoint a liaison for homeless students. Washington State receives $950,000 each year in McKinney-Vento funding, which pays mostly to transport homeless students to and from school. It sounds like a large sum, but not all of Washington’s school districts actually receive McKinney-Vento dollars, and for the ones that do, the amounts are not always enough to fully cover the cost of supporting homeless students. “Big school districts like [Seattle] have full-time liaisons, but that’s not necessarily the case in all school districts,” says Jordan. Takahashi, for instance, only works 32 hours a week.

The school-specific support is great. But Katara Jordan would also like to see the state increase affordable housing and create a legal framework that lets schools reach out to at-risk students and families before crises occur. “It’s crucial that we’re proactive rather than reactive,” says Jordan, “and that we remove the stigma from being homeless.”

Eunsoo’s second year at the UW is drawing to a close, and her life is pretty put together. School is going well. She just renewed the lease on her apartment. She still does private tutoring. For the past year, she’s been volunteering with the UW Dream Project, which helps low-income and first-generation students get a college education. “Now that I am stable, I want to help others and advocate for homeless youth,” she says.

Eunsoo’s mother is still living in Texas with her immigration lawyer husband. Eunsoo’s speaks to her occasionally. But Eunsoo is still alone in the world, still caring for her younger sister. “I can’t say I’m fully out of homelessness,” says Eunsoo. “There are still things I have to worry about.” Basic things that most of her friends take for granted.

But despite all she’s been through, Eunsoo is thriving. Her story is a testament to how a little support can change the future for young people living on the edge, and a stark reminder that for every Eunsoo who has managed to escape homelessness, there are countless others out there who have not.

Photos by Allyce Andrew.

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