Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Living on the Brink of Homelessness by Brenda Rufener, author of Where I Live

Where I Live (Final Cover)Growing up, my parents struggled financially, and for years we lived on the brink of homelessness. My parents couldn’t afford childcare, so on Saturdays my mother dropped my six-year-old brother and me off at the steps of our rural public library where the doors opened at 9:00 am, and we were greeted as patrons. At the time, I had no clue of my family’s struggles, and I felt like the luckiest kid on earth spending weekends in a quiet space filled with books.


The librarians never side-eyed my worn-out tennis shoes or my brother’s Kool-Aid stained face. They didn’t bat an eye at a parentless ten-year-old stretched out on a patchwork rug reading to her younger sibling. As long as we respected the rules, we were welcome until closing time. The library became our place of refuge.


A few years later, I’d become keenly aware of my parents’ financial struggles. Money became a heated topic. How we needed it but never had it. And when my father lost his job due to layoffs, the already shaky foundation of my home crumbled.


We shuffled back and forth between homes and couches belonging to relatives. Our days spent living with family members turned to weeks, and weeks to months. I remember friends wanting to come over and hang out, but no rested on the tip of my tongue, embarrassed of the fact that I had no bedroom of my own. “Let’s meet at the library,” I’d say.


My situation, although not as severe as many homeless teens, partly inspired my novel, Where I Live. When writing, I drew on personal experiences, emotions, and insecurities I had growing up while facing homelessness.


The statistics of homelessness are 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 nine percent were between the ages of 18 and 24. Unfortunately, this number continues to rise.


Public awareness has improved dramatically since I was a kid, but there is still work to be done. Today, housing insecurity, like my parents experienced during my childhood and teen years, is at an all time high. We’re seeing a large number of college students living in their vehicles because they can’t afford rent. This is especially true among community college students. We’re also seeing families forced out of their homes due to abrupt rent hikes. And an alarming number of LGBTQ+ teens being forced from their homes after coming out to their parents.


To compound problems, many homeless shelters are not equipped to take in teens, especially those who identify as girls. Homeless teens report that they don’t feel safe or comfortable in homeless shelters that cater to adults.


In college, I volunteered with a literacy program helping homeless young women. Struck by their tenacity and unwillingness to give up hope, I was drawn to their strength. How I wished teen-me had known these women. They were homeless, but never hopeless, and they helped show me how homelessness takes on many faces.


Homelessness is not always the weathered and grizzled man panhandling on the street corner. Yes–he exists and should be helped, but other faces exist, too. They are the student sitting next you in class. The friend living in her car with dreams similar to your own. They are ambitious young people who are much more than their crisis.


Today, I continue my volunteer efforts to raise money and collect supplies for teen homeless shelters. Spoiler: Shelters need tampons, deodorant, and women’s hygiene products, and they are some of the least donated items. This small act of service is a reminder to myself, and now to my own children, that homelessness has many faces and is not a one size fits all journey.


My novel, Where I Live, is a tribute to the resilient homeless youth I’ve encountered over the years, and to a library community that filled me with hope and possibility.


Credit: Carolyn Scott Photography

Credit: Carolyn Scott Photography

Meet Brenda Rufener

Brenda Rufener is a technical writer turned novelist who spent her childhood stomping through the woods of Oregon. A double major in English and biology, Brenda graduated from Whitman College, and now lives in North Carolina with her family. She is an advocate for homeless youth.


And buy link:


Book Review: Spirit Level by Sarah N. Harvey

Publisher’s description

spiritHarriet (known as Harry) is a donor-conceived child who has never wanted to reach out to her half-siblings or donor—until now. Feeling adrift after a breakup with her long-time boyfriend, Harry tracks down her half-siblings, two of whom are in Seattle, where Harriet lives. The first girl she meets is fifteen–year-old Lucy, an effervescent half-Japanese dancer. Then she meets Meredith, a troubled girl who is always accompanied by her best friend, Alex. Harry and Alex are attracted to each other, much to Meredith’s chagrin, and when it becomes clear that Meredith is an accomplished liar, Harry makes it her business to figure out what Meredith is up to. In the course of her investigation, she discovers a lot about Meredith, but the biggest shock is not about Meredith—it’s about Alex, who was born female. So now Harry must deal with not only her growing attraction to Alex, but also Meredith’s hostility. As decisions are made around whether to contact their donor, the three donor sisters negotiate their relationship and Harry tries to figure out what she really wants.


Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Harry leads an interesting life. She works every Sunday at her “grandma” Verna’s hair salon giving free hair washes and haircuts to the “Sunday ladies,” a rotating cast of homeless women. Verna is not Harry’s grandma by blood relation; Verna took Harry’s mother in when she was young and homeless. Harry’s mother now has a PhD and is a sociology professor whose main area of research is the lives of homeless and runaway young girls. These girls and their stories (as well as some of those of the older “Sunday ladies”) show up a lot in this novel, as Harry spends time transcribing her mother’s interviews with the homeless girls.


After reading a magazine article about donor siblings, Harry decides she’s finally ready to begin searching for her siblings. Harry’s mom, a Single Mother by Choice, had long ago set Harry up with a way to access the donor sibling registry. Harry decides she wants this to just be her thing for now and doesn’t tell her mom that she’s starting her search. She quickly finds three donor brothers and two donor sisters, both of whom are currently in Seattle, where Harry lives. As she learns more about all of them, she finds they all have very different family makeups and reasons why their mothers used a sperm donor. After getting over the initial shock of how enthusiastic and gregarious her sister Lucy is, she begins to grow close to her. The introduction of another sister, Meredith, interrupts that growing bond. Meredith is secretive and hard to read. Harry just doesn’t click with her. She does, however, click with Alex, Meredith’s best friend who is also living in Seattle. When Harriet embraces the MO of one of her namesakes, Harriet the Spy, and digs into Meredith and Alex’s pasts, she uncovers something she didn’t expect: Alex used to be Danielle. Harry is thrown for a loop, but not horrified or upset or anything negative. She has some questions, but now knowing Alex is transgender doesn’t change anything. She’s still interested in pursuing a relationship with him, but Meredith has other ideas.


I really liked this book. I’ll admit that the title didn’t draw me in. Did I know that a spirit level is something carpenters use for checking if things are level? Of course not. Did I read the title as something either supernatural or New Agey? Yep. Good thing I looked beyond that and read the description. Harry and her mom are wonderful characters. They are very close and supportive of each other. Harry’s mom has worked hard to teach Harry to be compassionate and open-minded. With the exception of Alex’s garbage heap of a mom, who we only briefly meet, all of the characters in this book are so supportive and caring. I love that we see stories here from donor-conceived teens, from homeless girls and women, and from families made up in a variety of ways. I also love Alex and Harry’s growing relationship. I don’t want to be like, oh, Harry is so great to not be bothered by learning that Alex is transgender, because that should never bother anyone and you shouldn’t get heaped with praise for simply not being a close-minded idiot. BUT—I really did love that Harry was like, okay, this is a thing we need to talk about, and I have some questions, but she wasn’t otherwise concerned. Overall this was a good read focusing on voices we don’t hear a lot of in YA. 


Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781459808164

Publisher: Orca Book Publishers

Publication date: 02/02/2016