Katie DeSantis was homeless seven times in her youth. She remembers wanting a stable home life and the luxury of a quiet place to study. However, the consequences of family violence, emotional stress, and poverty caused her to miss out on much of her childhood.
At the age of three, she witnessed her drunken father beat her mother. When her battered mom crawled into bed with her on another occasion, Katie consoled her by saying everything would be okay. But it wasn’t. Her mother escaped the abuse and moved Katie and her younger sister to Minneapolis, but then there were new problems.
“My Mom couldn’t hold down a steady job or a place for us to stay. We would live somewhere for six months to a year and get evicted and end up in a shelter. It was just a lot of transitions when I was a kid.” Katie says her mother was just really bad with money and budgeting. “Even now that we’re grown, she still has a problem budgeting for herself.”
They lived in various shelters, including one that served 1,500 people a night. There was no privacy and it was hard to do her homework in a loud and crowded area. Plus it was embarrassing, especially for a teenager in high school. “That’s an awkward phase and you don’t want to do anything to set you apart. I would have the bus drop me off around the corner and I never invited anyone to where I lived. Very few people knew my situation.” School became her refuge and the place where she excelled. She was a cheerleader, a member of the student council and of the National Honor Society.
Her homelessness remained hidden until she was a sophomore in high school, when a liaison to the school district at the shelter told one of her teachers. “He sat me down and became my ally.” He gradually let other teachers know.
She “came out” to her friends when she won the Beat the Odds award in 2006. “It was uncomfortable at first, but Beat the Odds really helped me to be able to tell my story and not be ashamed of the life I had lived. It helped me to be more confident. It was a big moment in my life.”
Katie graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota. She now works for Head Start in Minneapolis as the coordinator of its Project Secure for homeless children. She picks up children from three shelters—often as many as 75—and takes them to Head Start and helps their parents get them medical care, eyeglasses and dental care. She also helps their parents with jobs and housing.
“I was one of those kids and that’s where my heart is. They didn’t do anything wrong. I want to make sure they know that.”