HOUSTON (AP) — That first night, surrounded by strangers, still shell-shocked after her family was cast onto the street, Tiara Reado shrank back into childhood. The teenager stayed glued to her mother's side, following her around the Star of Hope shelter like a toddler.
When the older woman stirred, Tiara stirred with her, whispering, "Mommy, where are you going? Mommy, I'm coming with you."
Then Tiara cried. She cried when they had to camp on the floor, next to dozens of other homeless families. She cried when they moved into a cramped room with narrow cots and cinderblock walls. She cried when she realized they had no place else to go.
For seven days straight, she cried.
What else can you do when you're 16 and your dad is out of work and your family has just been evicted? What else can you do when you're just a kid — scared and sleepy and hungry?
A few months later, Courtney Williams was huddled on the floor of the same shelter, sharing space with the unknown and clutching his Bible.
The 17-year-old's family had just been kicked out of their apartment. His mother had been very sick for a very long time and he was on the verge of dropping out of school. The whole world, it seemed, was conspiring against him.
So, Courtney bowed his head over the Book of Proverbs, sobbed quietly and prayed. All night long, he cried.
What else could he do?
On those dark nights of tears, when everyday teenage dreams were displaced by uncertainty, Tiara and Courtney cried for the homes they lost, the proms they wouldn't attend, the colleges they couldn't afford. What they didn't yet know was that, sometimes, falling into shadow will lead you to the light.
With its boxy industrial-green exterior and pungent ammonia-cleaner smell, the Star of Hope Women & Family Emergency Shelter is a place of last resort, a safety net for those in a downward spiral — and a hard gulp for families losing the fight for subsistence.
"When people come here, they are acknowledging that they can't make it on their own," said Marilyn Fountain, Star of Hope's director of community relations. "There's a certain kind of humiliation that comes with that. It's a tough place to be."
Tough enough for the adults who trudge through the doors, clasping plastic bags stuffed with belongings and carrying the slight shrug of defeat on their shoulders.
Much tougher still for the children. Some too young to understand. Others, like Tiara and Courtney, old enough to feel the keen edge of fear and embarrassment.
On any given day, more than half of the 300 people crowded into the emergency shelter are under age 18. Of the 600 people staying in various Star of Hope facilities, about 200 are children.
"They have no control over their circumstances. They didn't create it and they can't change it," said Fountain. "Children live more in the moment, and the moment in which they are living is fraught with images of deprivation."
That moment doesn't last forever. But when you're a teenager, and life has been full of bumps and bruises and blows, it can feel like an eternity.
By the time Tiara and her family landed at Star of Hope in the summer of 2010, the good years of her early childhood had dissolved into a long patch of bad.
In middle school, taunts about boys from mean girls escalated into a cycle of fights and suspensions, turning school into a gauntlet of bullying. When she was about 13, Tiara was sexually assaulted by a boy she liked, a trauma she kept hidden for months.
Then, her father, a sandblaster who works out of state, was hurt on the job and had no way to support the family. Bills piled up. Rent was overdue.
One day, Tiara's mother sat her down and told her they had been evicted.
"Ma, where are we going? Is there a house I don't know about?" Tiara asked, feeling lost, confused, and achingly useless.
At first they stayed with Tiara's grandmother, but after a disagreement, they were on the streets again.
Tiara searched on Google for family shelters and stumbled onto Star of Hope.
At her first glimpse of the Women & Family Emergency Shelter, Tiara burst into tears. Strangers were everywhere: weary mothers pushing strollers, unkempt women muttering to themselves, wary and skittish teens like herself.
Tiara didn't want to be there. And she didn't want her classmates at Phillis Wheatley High School finding out her address was now an emergency shelter.
Kids will talk about you until it hurts, Tiara had learned long before. Even if you're not homeless, even if you have a place to stay. They will talk and it will hurt.
So, she didn't tell anyone except the school principal and her closest friends. She was the first one picked up on the bus route in the morning, and the last one dropped off in the afternoon. She raced to keep the laundry room time slot assigned to her family, just to have clean clothes to wear.
Through it all, Tiara kept her sorrows masked.
She laughed loudly and acted crazy and smiled her big, incandescent smile. But behind that vivacious facade, the worries circled like sharks: When are we going to get out of this? When is it going to get better?
That's what Courtney was asking himself as well.
In the fall of 2010, while Tiara was trying to hide her homelessness, Courtney was scraping and scrambling to keep his family afloat.
The previous year, around winter break, the then-high school freshman had come home to find his mother, younger brother and sister gone.
All Courtney found was a note on the door, telling him to get the key from a neighbor.
For several days, he sat alone. He watched Christmas come and go by himself. Then he found out that his mother, who was raising the family on her own, had been rushed to the hospital and was gravely ill.
Suddenly, Courtney was thrust into the roles of cook, housekeeper and breadwinner. He mowed lawns, fixed bikes, did whatever it took to raise a few dollars. He looked after his siblings, and when his mother was released from the hospital unable to walk, Courtney took care of her, too.
And the boy who had kept up his grades during a childhood spent bouncing from one apartment to another, who loved math and science and poetry, who longed to be an aerospace engineer, desperately tried to keep from falling behind in school.
But it was like a steep climb up a crumbling mountain.
Courtney missed days of school to nurse his mother. He turned in projects late because there was no money for simple supplies like poster board or markers. He failed classes but couldn't afford the bus fare to get to credit recovery courses.
His teachers at Yates High School didn't believe his excuses and accused him of slacking off. One day Courtney pushed his mother to school in a wheelchair to prove he was not inventing her illness.
Courtney's mother watched her baby flail, and she felt her heart shred. Courtney watched his grades slip, and he felt ground down.
"I'm not a bad person," he would think to himself. "So why do bad things keep happening?"
Still, Courtney held onto the one thing that had never deserted him: his faith.
The kid who once was teased for being a "church freak" because he went to services and Bible study four or five times a week grasped tightly to the Good Book. Over and over, he read Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding."
And he went to Hope for Youth, a ministry for teens grappling with poverty, homelessness and hard times.
It was there one day, while playing a game of Connect Four, that he met a lanky, bright-eyed girl whose flashing smile was shaded by tears.
They became instant friends. This girl with her troubles tucked behind a bubbly exterior; this boy with his troubles etched plainly on a solemn demeanor.
The kind of friends who exchange texts late at night, call just to make sure everything's OK, write each other's names in notebooks. The kind who understand when no one else does.
For Tiara, Courtney became a lifeline in the storm, the voice in her head telling her not to give up, to never give up.
When her classmates found out she was homeless. When her baby sister's first birthday was celebrated in a shelter. When teachers didn't believe what she was going through.
When dancing and music and journal-writing weren't enough to wipe the worries from her mind.
Courtney was there, even as his world was in tatters.
I'm going through this with you; you're not alone, he would assure her. God puts us through things so we can grow in faith, he would counsel. In time we'll understand and eventually things will get easier, he would soothe, sounding far wiser than his years.
So, Tiara brushed off the bullies and the bad days. Her thoughts of dropping out dissipated. And she plunged herself into homework and extra credit, determined to catch up in school and to prove those who doubted her wrong.
This is just one part of my life, she wanted to tell the teasers and taunters. I haven't even begun to start living.
In the early months of 2011, Tiara's father had found work again, her family had moved out of the shelter, and she was on track to graduate.
But just as Tiara's roadblocks began to clear, the ground opened up beneath Courtney's feet.
Courtney, then in his junior year, discovered he had slipped so far behind in school that he was classified as a freshman. All his hard work, all the hours spent studying, had been for nothing.
One afternoon, Courtney and his siblings came home from church camp to find their belongings packed in boxes. His mother, sitting hunched at a table, was in tears. The family had been evicted and had nowhere to go.
A smile stayed fixed on his face, but inside Courtney felt his faith ebbing away.
He raced to give the family's furniture away to people who had even less. He lobbied for a place in the Star of Hope's emergency shelter, competing with dozens of other families in the same straits.
That night, in the summer of 2011, Courtney found himself sleeping on the tile floor of the shelter. He opened his Bible to a verse about a man who cried out to God, and in the morning, has his cries answered.
And so it was.
The next morning, Courtney and his family got a room in the shelter. It was, he realized, the first step in inching out of the darkness.
One of the first things Courtney did was to reach out to other teenagers at the shelter, who were too embarrassed to go outside, too ashamed to let anyone see that they were homeless. He let them know they were not alone.
Over the next year, Courtney managed to catch up on his classes by staying after school for hours, churning out homework assignments, and begging for extra credit. He signed up for Advanced Placement courses. He got to know the students on the University of Houston debate team, who volunteer in the shelter cafeteria, and tagged along to tournaments.
There, he caught the eye of UH officials, who were so impressed that they offered Courtney a full scholarship.
For a split second, when he first heard the news, Courtney was afraid it was an illusion that would evaporate upon waking. Soon, however, the disbelief transformed into a grin that wouldn't quit.
On June 2, Courtney marched across the stage to receive his diploma from Yates High School. He cried. His mother, sitting in the audience, screamed with delight.
Two days later, Tiara got a diploma of her own from Furr High School's REACH Charter, where she transferred after leaving Star of Hope.
The best friends, who once shed tears on the same shelter floor, now see Star of Hope as a lucky misfortune.
It is a place that caught them as they were falling, and led them to each other.
"She's like me. I can tell her everything," says Courtney, 18, whose family still lives in the shelter's Transitional Living Center. "Even though we were both going through hard times, we leaned on each other and gave each other comfort and advice."
Times are still tough, and their families still scuffle to stay on solid footing, but these days, the light edges out the darkness.
In the fall, Courtney plans to enter UH, pursuing his goal of becoming an aerospace engineer. Tiara is taking classes at Houston Community College and hopes eventually to open her own dance studio.
Both want other people to know that the face of homelessness is not always what you think.
"People think when you're homeless, you have nowhere to go, you have no food, you're in dirty clothes all the time, and you're living under a bridge," says Tiara, 18. "But homeless is not just someone standing on the street with a sign."
Sometimes, homeless is a young girl with sparkling eyes and a contagious laugh or a young boy who loves math and science and poetry. And, sometimes, homeless doesn't have to last forever.