How being homeless prepared me to mentor others to succeed in life

Adversity quote by Josh HindsTwo months before I graduated, I was homeless, and stayed that way for six months. This wasn’t the fault of anyone other than myself, as I was merely an 18-year old, naive young man struggling to find my place in the world.

My biological parents had divorced when I was three years old, and my father remarried once and my mother twice. With all of these abrupt changes, it is hardly surprising that my relationship with my stepparents was fractured at best, with rampant and sustained verbal and physical abuse.

But this article isn’t about seeking sympathy, but rather how I made it, what I observed while homeless and the pursuit of my goals that prevented me from becoming another Heritage statistic on how environment determines development, of which I was familiar thanks to my weekly meetings with the school counselor as an “at-risk youth”.

Getting Through it

Completing high school when I was sleeping in the back of my car wasn’t easy. During that time, I also had a restaurant job where I was working roughly 30 hours a week. The manager was a friend of mine and allowed me to stay a few nights at his house and even let me keep my meager groceries in the store refrigerator. Even though my life had been turned upside down, I was determined to see my way through high school.

After graduating with my highly dysfunctional family in tow, I “moved” back to my nearby hometown to try and find work. After an unsuccessful one-week attempt of trying to live with my emotionally unavailable father, I wound up at a local homeless shelter. Many of the other residents were older than me and stated over and over again to take the uplifting messages of the shelter staff “with a grain of salt.”

Despite these somewhat cryptic messages, I continued looking for work every day while I stayed at the shelter. The mission staff were nice enough to supply me with fresh clothes for my job search, but without a working car, I was limited to what jobs were within walking distance. After a week of applying, I was able to secure two part-time jobs that were close to each other, but one left me no choice but to accept a night shift, which made me ineligible to remain at the shelter.

However, I was able to find another resident who was about to “age out” of the program, had a full-time job and needed to find a place to live. He was a recovering addict who was regularly attending Narcotics Anonymous and had a car. After spending two days looking for a place, we found one for the right price, but sadly, in a less-than desirable neighborhood where break-ins, violence and drug use were an everyday occurrence.

Under this type of pressure, it didn’t take long before my roommate relapsed and he even disappeared once for a week. When he finally returned and asked me to cover his half of the rent because he lost his job, I kicked him out and resolved to pay rent myself. Unfortunately, this also coincided with my property manager increasing my rent by $100 a month without notice. It wasn’t until I moved out with some new, clean roommates that he was a slumlord who would “bait and switch” renters with low rates and did little to maintain the property itself. At one time, he even outright ignored an order from another resident to change their lock due to a recent break-in.

Consistent & Sustained Motivation Wins

Despite these many setbacks over a two year period, one thing remained constant: my habit of setting daily goals. Now, I’m financially stable, a mentor for at-risk youth, an involved father to my eight year-old son and a former Business student who graduated in the top 5% of his class. It took some time to shake off the bad experiences I had went through since I was 18, but in the end, I survived and even thrived.

There’s no doubt in my mind that my drive to set personal, daily goals was responsible, even carrying me through some of the most emotionally challenging events of my life. As a mentor, I strive to instill this value in my charges on a daily basis, but it’s a hard climb at times, as it was for me.

So why did my parents’ divorce have such an impact on my when I was only three years old at the time? Why were the other residents at the shelter so quick to tell me that there wasn’t a future beyond taking freebies and jumping from town to town?

The Uphill Battle of Insignificance

My parents were married in 1980, two years before I was born. My mother lived in Hawaii and moved up to Idaho to marry my father, who worked inconsistently in the auto repair industry. My mother worked some customer service jobs, but generated a more steady income than my father did. They also got married during a time when Idaho had the fourth highest marriage rate per capita. In total, their marriage lasted five years, but degenerated quickly during that time. In fact, their split was part of a seemingly nationwide upward trend of divorce, at almost three times the rate it was in 1960.

Even worse, children who grow up in broken or otherwise unstable homes are more likely to experience financial and emotional instability. One question that I was always asked throughout my school years was “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Where some of my friends were quick to supply requisite answers like “astronaut” or “President”, I would always feel nothing but a deep pit in my stomach. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and it scared me.

After a string of dead end jobs and a nagging inability to set any long-term goals for a large portion of my life, it’s hard to discount the links to what has been uncovered through research. For the young people that I oversee, I spend more time talking with them about their hobbies and finding activities that engage and inspire their own inherent strengths, as opposed to pressuring them to make a life-altering choice today. So far, the results have been great, with one of them preparing for his college career in business.

A gleaming ray of hope, if you ask me, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Breaking the Cycle

But what about the naysayers at the homeless shelter? Funny enough, a study published online and conducted by Dr. Kelly Schwend of Bradley University stated that in order to move individuals from poverty and homelessness, the provision of structured, goal-oriented programming is essential. Many of my fellow residents were high school graduates, but didn’t have any defined goals to strive for aside from figuring out where their next meal will come from.

Breaking this cycle of thinking is something that I contend with on a daily basis with the kids I mentor, many of whom come from broken homes as well, but it can be done. We just need to be reminded that despite the difficulties that surround us on a daily basis, we need to believe in ourselves and set little goals for ourselves every single day. You could say that my insistence to set daily goals started during one of the most difficult periods of my life, and I use that now to instill hope in the young ones that may have been forgotten amidst the chaos.
Robert Conrad is a broken home survivor, father and mentor for at-risk youth. When he’s not trying to save the world, he’s firmly parked in front of video game consoles older than him. Visit him at his website, or on twitter.


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