Part I: Series on Education of the Homeless
Defying Statistics: A Homeless Mother Beats the Odds
Despite the fact that I know Covenant House is a shelter for kids between 17 and 21, I am still caught off guard when I meet Areleny Caballero in person, a 21-year-old single mother in Covenant House’s Rights of Passage program.
When we meet, she is clutching eagerly to a set of photographs of herself and her fellow Rights of Passage Kevin, at a recent ceremony where they were honored as the only recipients of Covenant House’s scholarship program.
When I ask her to share the photographs, she confesses that she is a timid public speaker but was able to briefly overcome her shyness when accepting the award. Despite this timidity, her pride at all that she has accomplished is obvious.
Areleny’s uncharacteristic maturity belies the behavior and experience of typical 21-year-old girls. The incredible responsibility she has had assumed at such an early age, seems to have diluted many typical attributes of a 21-year old girl. Her black slacks, a T-shirt and a small skull ornamented cell phone holder are the only remaining hints of her self-described adolescent rebellion.
As she begins to share the story of how she came to Covenant House at the age of 19, there are no traces of bitterness or regret, only faith and gratitude. “Everything happens for a reason,” she repeats.
At the age of 16 while still in high school, Areleny admits that conflicts with her mother pressured her to leave home to live with her paternal grandmother. Shortly after, she discovered she was pregnant. Her decision to leave her grandmother’s home came, she says, out of pride and guilt. Feeling ashamed and unwilling to consider an abortion, she decided to move in with her baby’s father and try to create a stable home for her child. She succeeded in completing high school and began enrolling in college-courses, when she began to realize that she would have to withdraw in order to support her child.
After finding a job at Circuit City, she struggled to make ends meet and to make her relationships work. When things with the child’s father began to deteriorate, Areleny turned to Covenant House’s crisis center for support. Arleny describes the day she arrived. Still dressed in her red Circuit-City uniform, she came to the 42nd street facility with trepidation. “When I think of a shelter, I imagined a bunch of beds piled on top of each other in a gymnasium, I didn’t want to expose my daughter to that, but I had no other options. “
The warmth of the staff soon dispelled her fears and she began to trust and appreciate the support she received there. Arleney and her two-year-old daughter shared a room with another single mother, and used a bathroom adjacent to room with two other single mothers. Since she was already employed, Arleneys routine at Covenant house deviated slightly from the typical resident.
She would wake up at 6 am with other residents, eat breakfast, feed Cailin, and immediately ride the subway to the Bronx to drop off her daughter. Then she returned to work on 79th street until 10 pm, after which Areleny still had to go uptown to pickup her daughter and return to the shelter. Areleny ’s busy schedule left her little time to socialize of bond with the other mothers in the shelter While other mother’s were bonding over breakfast, Areleny was already on her way to the Bronx to drop off her daughter with a family friend. While other mothers adhered to a strict 8 pm curfew, she still had to complete her shift at Circuit City.
Within 30 days she was interviewed and accepted to Covent House’s Rights of Passage program, to a small room on 17th street which she shares with her 3-year-old daughter. As she awaits her requests for public housing to be answered, she covets her newfound privacy. Her relentless independent streak, and spirit of overachievement has motivated her to take on much more responsibility than other youth in the program. Even the rent, which covenant house youth are expected to pay biweekly, Areleny submits all at once.
She admits she is reluctant to share or get to close to the other people in the shelter. For now she remains focused on her job as a part-time employee at T-mobile Best Buy, managing a full course load of classes at Katherine Gibbs, where she is focusing on legal studies, and caring for Cailin, her daughter.
She is candid about her fear of the toll that her heavy workload has taken on her daughter. “If I were her I would think that Mommy doesn’t have enough time for her. Sometimes I feel I’ve abandoned her, but I want to make sure she is aware of everything. I don’t want to live a fake life in front of her”
Areleny is no stranger to hard work. She worked her way through high school everywhere from McDonald’s to a junior clothing store to Circuit City. She is the first single mother in the Covenant house to pursue a college degree, while working and raising her 3-year-old daughter. To other young women in her situation, Areleny ’s advice is simple. “Listen to your parents, you have to make sacrifices in order to survive and take care of your child. You have to think for two now.”
Her dream is to finish her studies and work as a paralegal; but her most important goal, she says is to provide a home for her and her daughter. “My dream for my future is to have a profession, a nice apartment and to give my daughter everything she needs. If I have $5 in my pocket and my daughter wants a ball and some food, and there’s a ball for $1 and $4 worth of food, then I am happy.” She credits her mother, who had her at 18, for instilling this selfless attitude and for teaching her the importance of working hard to provide for her children. Arleney has no regrets and credits Covenant House helped her to repair not only her own life, but her relationship with her mother.#