Where I Live
By Brenda Rufener
Harper Collins Publishers, Will Be Released On February 27
Brenda Rufener is a long-time advocate for homeless youth and she wanted to tell a story that would give voice to the many teenagers she has helped get back on their feet.
Drawing on those experiences and her own family’s financial struggles when she was growing up, Rufener has written a riveting coming of age story of hope’s triumph over adversity in Where I Live.
Hinderwood High School sophomore Linden Rose has a big secret. At the end of each school day, when her fellow classmates go home to the hot meals and warm beds their families provide them, Linden is already home. She lives in the halls of her small town’s high school because she is homeless, with no parents of her own to take care for her.
Linden is brave, stubborn, and resourceful, and she’s designed a set of survival rules she can follow to hide her living situation in plain sight. She is also determined to get good grades and write for her school’s blog so that she can earn a college scholarship and fulfill her dreams of becoming a journalist.
If the authorities discover her living situation, they’ll send her away and upend her carefully laid plans. So while lying to her best friends and favorite teacher is breaking her heart, she must keep up the charade.
That is tested when her friend Bea, the cool girl in school, comes to school with a bloody lip, Linden can’t stand by and watch abuse happen – it’s too close to the trauma of her own past.
To stop the violence, Linden realizes she must tell her own story, even if it jeopardizes the secrets she’s worked so hard to protect.
What she discovers through the kindness and support of the people around her, is that her friends could be the true family she has always hoped for.
Surprising, evocative, and uplifting, Where I Live, with its first-person perspective, is an intimate portrait that reflects the plight of so many young people who are currently facing homelessness and poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Housing ad Urban Development, on a single night in January of 2016, more than half a million people were homeless in the U.S., with more than one fifth being children and almost one tenth between the ages of 18 and 24.
This is an important novel to be read, shared, and discussed among teens and adults.
Rufener says of what she wants her work to achieve, “In my novel, I wanted to explore answers to the following questions: What happens when you lose everything? How do you survive when you have nothing? Are we all just one step away from being homeless?
“Through my volunteer work with homeless teens, I’ve seen that homelessness takes on many shapes. There is no one-size-fits-all journey, Linden represents just one face of homelessness.”
Rufener on why she wrote Where I Live:
It took most of my life to develop the truth inside Where I Live. Family members, friends, and strangers, quietly opening doors to my life, always sticking around long enough to show me what the many faces of homelessness looked like. Remembering these faces, along with the financial struggles I experienced as a teen, helped create the book’s main character – a homeless teen, living by a set of survival rules she designed to help her hide in plain sight. She’s stubborn and vulnerable and hates lying to the friends who have become a makeshift family.
My exposure to homelessness provoked deeper questions and helped me to create a coming-of-age tale of hope over adversity. What happens when you lose everything? How do you survive when you have nothing? Are we all just one step away from living homeless?
My first exposure to homelessness was in middle school. Rumors flooded the halls of my junior high about a boy with blond hair and torn t-shirts seen riding a bicycle along the only thoroughfare our rural Oregon town offered. I’d seen the boy they were talking about, the one kids started calling the Vagrant, hopping from his bicycle and leaning it against the cinder block wall of the grocery store. I was sitting in a car, waiting for my mother, and watched as he rooted through a dumpster for aluminum cans. A few days later, I’d see him fly by on his bike as I left a birthday party at a local pizza parlor. Someone would say, “Hey! That’s the Vagrant!” and someone else would say, ‘I heard his name was Chris.”
Kids argued over the boy’s name. How it wasn’t really Chris, but Joe, and later Tom. And in reality, the young man these kids talked about didn’t wear torn t-shirts, he wore a hoodie, and his hair wasn’t blond, it was black. Yet I really knew nothing more about this boy, except how he could jump curbs and corner a sidewalk better than most of the BMX riders I’d seen on TV. But in a tiny town, where everyone knew what you’d had for breakfast, this young man stood out. And before long, parents were warning their children to stay away from “the teen who might be up to no good.”
“Isn’t there something we can do?” I’d asked a teacher and she gently informed me that the boy probably would be gone before too long, since there was no homeless shelter in our town and the police frowned upon runaways. She was right. Soon the boy disappeared, but not before the rumors surfaced again. How he’d run away from an abusive foster family, spent nights in local campgrounds. How he’d hidden in plain sight.
My questions and concerns led me to my grandfather, who would share with me how poverty and homelessness were as much a part of my own family as freckles and short legs. I would learn that my grandfather, a humble jack-of-all-trades, lived homeless at the young age of twelve. He would work eighteen-hour shifts inside a cotton gin where he wouldn’t see the sunlight for three months. He would stockpile enough money to rent a room in a barn, and later marry my grandmother, start a business and a family, and become someone I’d look up to and admire.
I’d like to believe that people pop in and out of our lives at just the right times, often leaving behind words or actions to add value to our existence. At least that’s the belief I clung to at the age of fourteen, when my parents faced financial hardship that led us to the edge of homelessness. My father had lost his job and uprooted our family from Oregon to Arizona with the optimism of a better economy that would lead to a more stable future. But his hopes would be shattered. He wouldn’t find work and my mother’s meager wages would barely be enough to feed us. I’d go to school wondering if today was the day that we would end up in a shelter or spend the night in the car. After a year of struggles, we moved back to Oregon, broke and unable to afford a place to live. We’d spend nights on a relative’s couch. and I’d wonder when the kids would discover my secret. How soon before they would start calling me the Vagrant?
I never forget my family’s struggle. Times that have fueled everything I do and all that I am. A time of uncertainty and period in my life that showed me anyone can experience hardships and insecurity over housing.
In college, I volunteered for a literacy program for young women, most of them homeless teens with hopes and dreams and a desire to break free from their current situations. They were a group of women facing adverse circumstances but unwilling to give in or give up, and I was drawn to their persistence. How I wished teen-me would have known these young women when I faced a similar situation. Their strength and courage were admirable. They were homeless, but never hopeless.
Homelessness takes on many shapes. There is no one size fits all journey. But the numbers are staggering, the statistics overwhelming and impersonal. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, on a single night in January, 549,928 people experienced homelessness in the United States. Over one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were children and 9 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24.
While Where I Live is a work of fiction, I could not have written this book without personalizing homelessness and remembering the people that visited my life, as well as the financial struggles and housing insecurity I faced as a teen. These memories gave me courage that I hope will strengthen discourse and help us to speak openly about teen homelessness and financial hardships that can impact any one of us at any given time.