Deon invited me to hang out at his house one day after school.
“I’ve got big news for you,” he said.
I told him I had even bigger news for him. Whatever his news was, mine was bigger.
“So Deon! Look carefully!” I said. “You’re now looking at San Myshuno High’s newest A student!”
He wrapped me in the biggest hug.
“I’m so proud of you, Jazz,” he said. “Against the odds, you did it!”
“So what’s your news?” I asked him.
“Meh. I’ll tell you later. Let’s just hang out and celebrate for a while.”
We went inside. I played his guitar.
We read together.
Then he said, “So here’s the deal.”
We set our books down.
“Remember when I stressed that staying at the park would be temporary? Well, pretty soon, we’ll be back in wedding season, and then the mansion will be full of caterers, musicians, bridesmaids, and busy-bodies. You won’t get to have free run of the place. Chances are, somebody’s gonna spot your camp, too, and then you and I’ll both have some answering to do. So, I’ve been looking for someplace you could stay.”
I reminded him I wasn’t going into foster care, and I couldn’t stay with him, or he’d get in trouble.
He said not to worry. He’d found a place.
“It’s called ‘Youth on their Own,'” he said. “YOTO. It’s run by the same yoga ashram that does the classes I take. I know these people. They’re good people.”
I snickered. “So what? All us homeless kids get up at the break of dawn every morning and do asanas? Like, how’s that supposed to help us?”
When I was finished joking he said that it was a place for kids in my situation to stay and have our living needs met so we could succeed in school. In fact, getting good grades was part of the program, and I already had that part met.
“I called them today,” he said. “They’ve got room for you. If you show up tomorrow after school, they’ll enroll you in the program.”
I had a million objections. Who else would be there? Would they force me to do yoga? Did I have to become a Hindu or Buddhist? What school would I go to? Who else lived there? What if I didn’t like anybody there? Would they ask all sorts of questions into my past?
He told me I’d still go to San Myshuno High, if I wanted. It was a half-hour ride on the rapid transit, and YOTO would provide me with a transit card.
He left me to think about it, while he stepped outside to look at the river.
It’s been a year and a half since anybody’s told me what to do. I’m doing all right. I haven’t died. I’ve kept myself safe. What if it’s not safe at the shelter? What if the other kids are creeps?
What if they’re not? What if I like the people there? Deon likes them. And I like Deon. It can’t be that bad. And even if it is, I could always leave. I know how to do that.
And what if I liked it?
I bet they have laundry facilities! Having use of the mansion, I’ve grown used to going to school in clean clothes every day. That’s not something I’d want to give up.
I told Deon I might do it. All I had to do was show up, right? I told him I wouldn’t make any promised, but I just might do it.
When I got back to the park, my mind was racing too much for me to sleep right away. I headed into the mansion where there’s good wi-fi, and I pulled up yoto.org on my tablet.
At the website, I read stories about dozens of kids, just like me. On the condition of going to school and earning good grades, YOTO gave them supplies, meals, clothes, transportation passes, and in some cases, places to stay.
They didn’t make a big deal about it, either, and nobody had to know. Each kid’s case was kept confidential, and the profiles on the website either had identifying details changed or were from kids who’d graduated and become successes.
I never stopped to think that there were other kids like me. I mean, I know at my school there are other McKinney-Vento kids, but I don’t know who they are. And I don’t think they know me. Now here was an entire place for kids like me. Maybe I wouldn’t be alone anymore. Maybe it was OK to let them help.
Author’s Note: YOTO is a real program in Southern Arizona (only it’s not run by yogis!). In the 2015-2016 school year, YOTO served 1,588 youth, and 214 seniors in the program graduated. One of the most talented young cellists I know is a YOTO graduate, and he’s now on his way to becoming a professional musician. If you’d like to help, you can find organizations like YOTO all across the nation: they’re always looking for donations and volunteers.