At just 17 years old, Taylor was alone and homeless.
He had witnessed his mother being beaten by one of his stepfathers while hiding in the bathtub until the police arrived.
No one had protected her since one of her mother’s many boyfriends sexually abused her. She had lived in a car because her mother preferred alcohol instead of paying rent, and she had gone hungry for days because she had no food. In summer, she wore jackets to hide the bruises from her.
Taylor is one of the success stories of a terrifying epidemic of youth homelessness in the United States.
Despite being pulled out of school to care for her younger siblings (her mother had five children from three different fathers) and missing her sophomore year, she was determined to graduate from high school and be the first in her family to graduate. of the University.
Today, she is not only a college graduate, she owns a home and works at one of the most violent schools in Florida.
Their story appears in the new book If You See Them: Young, Unhoused And Alone In America by Vicki Sokolik.
Taylor was determined to become the first in her family to graduate from college.
Taylor on the day she moved into her dorm at St. Leo University in Florida
An estimated 4.2 million adolescents and young adults are homeless each year in the United States; 700,000 of them are alone, like Taylor.
These are teenagers who do not live with their parents or guardians. They are not eligible for foster care because they left home and child protective services did not remove them from their home. They are not ‘runaways’: they escape abuse or neglect, survive on free school meals, join school sports teams so they can shower, and sleep on friends’ couches, in parks, or on the streets.
“My mother had an unrealistic idea that a daughter should stay home from school to clean the house,” she said. ‘My grandmother instilled this “value” in her, which caused her to drop out of school in the seventh grade.
‘My mother never worked the entire time I lived with her. We lived on support from my father and then also from the father of my little brother and sister. That was really the only source of our income. We just went or lived wherever we could afford to go.
‘When I was in primary school, I saw my stepfather hit my mother. One of the times he hit my mom, she was pregnant with my little brother.
‘Many of my stepfathers were arrested during my childhood. The culmination of these events was the day my older sister stepped in to try to protect my mom and little sister from our third stepfather. I hid in the bathtub with the shower curtain closed while my mom and sister were arrested.
“No one protected me from the 34-year-old man my mother visited regularly and who touched me sexually when I was 13.
‘I saved my lunch money so I could pay for a prepaid cell phone. It was more important to make sure I had a way to call or text someone if I or my mom were hurt. Other times I didn’t eat for days because we were homeless and living in the car.
‘My mother preferred alcohol to having a house. We lived perpetually in our car or going back and forth between strangers’ houses.
When she was 16, Taylor begged her mother to let her move in with a friend so she could finish her 11th grade and still be on track to graduate. It was a brief period of stability: regular meals, going to school during the day and attending night school to work on the classes she had missed. “I felt like I had this pretty little thing going,” she said.
“But as soon as summer came, my mom told me, ‘You can’t stay there anymore. You have to come with me.” She had taken me from a place where she was stable because she was lonely. But going with her meant being nowhere. We were jumping around, hanging out with people she knew or living in her car. As I watched how his drinking was getting out of control, the bad decisions became too much for me.’
On the Fourth of July, during a drunken party, when her mother tried to force her to have a drink, she snapped.
‘Mum took me outside and told me I had embarrassed her. She pushed me and I pushed her back and said, “Don’t ever put your hands on her again. I’m done.”
‘Then around 2am I went to the kitchen. I passed by a room where my mom was on top of a guy, having sex with him. She didn’t see me. I couldn’t take it anymore.
‘I found an email with the address to find out where we were. I didn’t even know we were in Sarasota. I grabbed my backpack and my cat and started walking down the path. It was my Independence Day.
Taylor with Vicki Sokolik, author and founder of the nonprofit SRN
An estimated 4.2 million teens and young adults experience homelessness in the U.S. each year, 700,000 of them are alone.
She temporarily moved in with her sister and her boyfriend, got a job, and enrolled in her fourth high school, still determined to graduate on time.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three teens will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. What kept Taylor from becoming a tragic statistic was, in part, contacting the nonprofit Starting Right, Now (SRN), which helps provide Florida youth with safe housing, academic support, access to social services, life skills classes, and tutoring.
Taylor moved into an apartment rented by SRN and decided to search for the father she had never met.
He was married with other children when he began an affair with her mother, and when her mother became pregnant, he ended the relationship and wanted Taylor to remain a secret. His mother threatened to expose the matter unless he paid regular child support.
When Taylor left home on July 4, those payments should have started coming directly to Taylor.
‘My biological father lived in Minnesota. That wasn’t a secret because my mom received a check from him every month with his name on it. I have his last name. But the address on the check was a PO box, so I didn’t know how to contact him other than my mom told me he owned a car dealership.
‘One day at school I started Googling him and found his car dealership. I wanted to call him and tell him that I ran away, that I no longer lived with my mother. That he didn’t need to send her money. I finally had the guts to do that. I called the dealership and said, “Hello, can I speak to…? And I said my father’s name.”
Taylor informed her father that she had left her mother. He thanked her for letting him know. He then asked her if he would be willing to send her the monthly checks directly, since it was supposed to be her child support. His father agreed and wrote down his address. Taylor hoped he would want to meet him in person, but he didn’t suggest it.
‘How could he not want a relationship with his own daughter?’ she kept asking.
A couple of weeks later, Taylor received her check in the mail. She was very excited, but part of her excitement had nothing to do with money. In her opinion, the check was a first step towards a loving relationship.
Homeless teens survive on free school meals, join school sports teams so they can shower, and sleep on friends’ couches, in parks, or on the streets.
But the next morning, her father left her a voicemail: “I’m so sorry, Taylor, don’t cash that check.” I had to cancel it. Your mom found out why I didn’t send her the money and she threatens to tell my wife everything.
SRN intervened and “reminded” his father that if he refused to send the checks to Taylor, as required by law, a lawsuit would be filed against him, his choice. His reluctant support allowed her to continue his education. But he never made any attempt to meet his daughter.
“To this day, I still have the envelope, the canceled check and the letter,” Taylor said. “It’s the only thing I have of him.”
Taylor graduated high school in 2012 and continued on to St. Leo University to earn her bachelor’s degree. She earned her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Florida State University in 2018 and is currently a social worker for Hillsborough County Schools.
Years into his career, he saw a story in a local newspaper about rampant violence at what was considered the “third most violent school in Florida.” Gangs of students pushed their classmates and teachers into lockers and beat them. Some of the children had been beaten so badly that they had become unconscious. A teacher had his arm broken.
The county was looking for a social worker and, believing her experience and knowledge could help her relate to students, Taylor applied and got the job.
She is also a homeowner providing security and stability for herself and her cats.
The last time Taylor saw her mother was at a Mexican restaurant shortly after she left. She said she wanted Taylor to come home and Taylor said, ‘Which house?’ Her mother was living in a car at the time.
Then he started talking about killing himself and how he would do it… and that he doesn’t know how to swim. He talked about walking into the ocean and never wanting to go back,” Taylor said.
“I left and never saw her again.”
If you see them: Young, homeless and alone in America by Vicki Sokolik is published by Spiegel & Grau