What do you think of when asked to describe a homeless person?
Most would describe an adult standing on a corner with a cardboard sign, usually by a highway exit ramp. We all have seen this type. Hollywood portrays homeless kids as dirty, unkept kids that usually get caught up in prostitution. But let me describe another version that may have been hiding right in front of you, maybe even in your own home.
A home is a place filled with love, support, and safety. Home is a place to relax and unwind. But for some kids, home is an everyday nightmare they are trying to survive. They are indeed without a safe place to call home. Their mode of survival is called Couch Surfing. Couch Surfing is bouncing around from house to house, crashing on someone’s couch, to avoid going home. How do I know about this? I was couch surfing by age 14 and fully lived out of my car by age 17. Growing up physically and sexually abused, I became a master at staying outside my home, for as long as possible.
Children from abusive homes learn how to be a chameleon and blend in. It’s a survival skill that helps them fade into the background of their volatile home life. This skill is what makes it so easy for them to be right in front of you. I knew the difference between functional parents and dysfunctional parents. If you are a loving and caring parent, your home would be an ideal target. I was safe in those homes. I was that kid that never went home. Parents would eventually complain about how I had overstayed my welcome. They had not anticipated buying groceries for an extra mouth to feed. Eventually, I would be asked to leave. Inside, I would cry. I just wanted a warm safe place to rest my head. I would still not say a word and gather up my belongings. My friend would try and help me find my next location on my couch tour. I would crash at kids’ houses that I didn’t even know. Some kids would give me a blanket for when I slept in my car during the winter.
Children from abusive homes learn how to be a chameleon and blend in. It’s a survival skill that helps them fade into the background of their volatile home life. 
Certain parents would let me stay longer than others. Those were the parents that always thought they were the popular parents among kids. They would pat themselves on the back about how all the kids loved hanging out at their house. In reality, it wasn’t hard for them to be “popular” to a group of dysfunctional kids. If they didn’t sexually assault children, they were viewed as good parents. The bar was set pretty low. 
What does a homeless kid look like? Ironically, it’s the image of a kid that you would pick as the perfect friend for your child. I was on the honor roll. By 7 am, I was one of the first ones to arrive early at school. I would spend time in the library waiting for others to arrive an hour later. Some nights, I wouldn’t leave school till after dark. I would seek out activities like drama club or color guard. Those activities had late night practices. Early morning practices would be found by joining the chess club or a language club. I also maintained a part-time job and had a boyfriend. Parents would see a well-rounded kid with stellar grades who was involved in multiple activities. I looked no different than a motivated kid working on their college prep resume. Yet, I was driving around with dishes and household items in the trunk of my car. Slowly, I was accumulating supplies for my future place…my own safe home.
What most people don’t realize, is that dysfunctional kids can be highly driven in school. We know education is our only way out of our hazardous situation. I knew that if I had any hope of leaving my house, I had to be able to financially support myself. Dropping out of high school was never an option. I would need a job that paid more than minimum wage to survive. Those kinds of jobs require at least a high school diploma or GED.
What most people don’t realize, is that dysfunctional kids can be highly driven in school. We know education is our only way out of our hazardous situation. 
You may be thinking, how is it possible to identify a troubled kid? Well, you can’t. The chameleon traits have been honed and developed their whole life. Those kids are alive and surviving because they have become masters at concealing their true self and their struggles. Still, there are signs to look for. Most of the detective work comes from having a positive relationship with your own kid. Some kids knew my struggle, others did not. But all my friends knew that something was not right in my home life.
Communication is the number one weapon in helping save children. Talk to your child about signs to look for in their friends. Maybe they know about their friend’s struggle but didn’t know how they could talk to you about it. Ask questions. Instead of wondering why this kid is always at your house, ask why your child is never at their house? What does your child see at their house? Does your child know what couch surfing is? How did they learn about it? When you ask the child to leave, do they go home? Have you met the child’s parents? When the kid leaves, does food come up missing? Does the kid hesitate to go home for the smallest thing such as getting a change of clothes? Once the kid is out, going home for anything runs the risk that they must fight to get back out.
The most difficult option is to ask the child directly and watch for body language. These kids have reached out for help before and someone has failed them. Meaning, they previously got punished for seeking help. If you go down this road, make sure you can go the distance. By telling you their story, this child has put their life in your hands.
As a society, we teach children to tell an adult when they are abused. That is a lot to place on a child considering most adults struggle to file assault charges. Also, most children do tell an adult. They are told to be quiet or told they must have misunderstood. Commonly, portrayed as liars or labeled as a problem child by their parents, they are cut off from those they reached out to for help. We say we need to start believing victims when they speak out. This should start by believing the children. Through these actions, hopefully, we can start seeing what is right in front of us.


Cindy Collins