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Homelessness Happens In College Too

Bill Zeeble
Denzel Bailey in the backyard of grandparents' place. It's been home for part of this summer. Otherwise he'd be homeless. He's back at UTArlington's dorm later this month. He'll be a senior

Denzel Bailey was homeless in high school -- and since he graduated, he’s lived in a dorm at the University of Texas at Arlington. Except summer, when the dorm closes. Summertime can be a tough time for homeless college kids like Denzel. 

Yes, you can be homeless and graduate high school, and even get into college. That doesn’t suddenly solve your homeless problem, Bailey says.  

“My first year I graduated, boom, our graduation. What’s the deal?" he wondered.

The deal for Bailey? In 2012, he had just graduated from North Side High in Fort Worth. He needed a place to stay. His mom didn’t always have an apartment but that summer she did.  It was crowded with younger siblings.

“I know my mother doesn’t have money, I don’t need to be here eating, there’s not a room for me,” Bailey says. “This isn’t my house.”

Bailey barely knows his dad, so his place wasn’t an option. He sofa surfed at homes of friends.

“So everybody is still in high school summer mode,” Bailey says. “So parents still don’t ask as many questions. You just come for like and stay a week or two and no one asks anything. That’s what I did the first summer. I would go to my moms, I would go to friends.”  

That summer after high school, Bailey also got help from the local Boys and Girls Clubs, where he was Youth of the Year. He got the award for overcoming homelessness and other challenges. As a result, he traveled, spoke to groups, and he got to stay in hotels.

When college began, he moved to a dorm at UT-Arlington. Then came summer again.  

“I had a cousin -- he works at General Motors,” Bailey explains. “He took me to Detroit, he took me to Chicago, spent like weeks out there. I spent a lot of that summer out.”

Summers haven’t gotten any easier. There’s a room available at his grandparents' place in Fort Worth. It used to be his dad’s, but Bailey says dad is in jail. So it’s his room this summer.

Bailey is an inspiration to a lot of people, including high school friend Carina Salinas. These days, she cares for her new infant, but keeps her college dreams alive.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Carina Salinas went to high school with Denzel and finds the young man an inspiration.

“No matter what he went through he always did his best in school, always,” Salinas says. “And he never let anything get in his way. And, you know, if he had so much going on he could do it, of course I could do it.”

Bailey inspires adults too, like mentor Lisa Hatfield. She’s with the Boys and Girls Clubs in Fort Worth. She’s known Bailey for five years.

“He always came to school every single day,” Hatfield says. “I don’t know how he made it to school every single day, but he was always at school. That was a really amazing thing. He would keep moving forward. That takes a really big person to move forward and see your goals and to keep going.”    

By now, Bailey has figured out summertime survival. A week or two with this friend, another week or two with a relative.

“As long as you can, as long as you can do that, and you can do that a week, two weeks at a time, things are fine. You do that, the summer passes by like that,” Bailey says. “Just keep moving like that. And then when you’ve exhausted them. 'OK, let me try disappearing for a bit. Let me see where my mom’s at. OK, my mom doesn’t have a place right now. Let me go knock on my grandmother’s door. Let’s see; stay here two to three days.' Rinse wash and repeat.”

In a few weeks, Denzel starts his senior year at UT-Arlington. He hopes to end that homeless cycle. After college, he wants to teach English overseas, perhaps for the Peace Corps.

Then, with his degree, he looks forward to teaching high school history, and getting his own place.

This story is part of KERA's American Graduate initiative.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.