Today, you’re going to meet Michael.
Michael Brown is an eighteen year old Columbia resident working his first job and getting back to school. His dream is to one day be a police detective. But Michael figured out what he wanted to do for a career because of a very, very painful past.
“I don’t like to think of young people feeling like I was feeling, growing up, about the law,” Michael explained.
Michael smiled wryly as he reflected. “I used to watch crime investigation shows on TV, like NCIS and Law and Order. And you’d see those crying moments in the show, you know? I hated seeing people getting mistreated like that on TV, because that is all happening in real life, too. I know.”
A dark and abusive childhood
Brown was only three years old when he was placed in foster care. He grew up the middle sibling and only male in the household. Throughout his childhood, his family never had a stable or permanent home—they moved throughout at least five South Carolina counties before they arrived in Columbia. Michael’s childhood was wrecked by his adoptive mother’s ongoing physical and emotional abuse of the children. When asked to describe how he felt thinking about his younger days, Michael sighed, closed his eyes, and slowly responded, “Scared. Hurt. Fear.”
After attending at least six different grade schools, Michael had become a very frightened and frustrated boy who felt like no one cared about him. “I started taking it out on my teachers and the cafeteria ladies,” he admitted, shaking his head in regret. “That’s basically where the behavioral problems started.”
Unfortunately, conditioned worsened for Michael and his family. He said his mother spent money on some things, but not on taking care of him and his two sisters. They continued to live transiently, moving from town to town through Michael’s early teenage years. Michael said by the time he was sixteen, his mother had stopped for providing for her children at all. The family was living temporarily in a rural South Carolina town, and Michael was struggling to survive. “I guess things were okay then—I had a place to live at least. I had a pillow on the ground,” he recalled.
But things weren’t okay. Michael’s mother was physically and emotionally abusive to him, and his life felt overwhelmed by seeing and experiencing many traumatic situations, including violence between his siblings and mother. At the age of fourteen, Michael went to sleep crying every night.
Coming out: Harsh teen years
For a young teen who had never had a real home and was growing up in distress, Michael’s loneliness and fear of his mother led to him acting out more frequently. But it was at the age of sixteen, when he came out to his adoptive mother, that he felt her harshest blow yet.
“That’s a big part of the reason she didn’t want me anymore. She said she doesn’t associated with LGBTs. She said ‘no son of mine dates guys.’ Then she just left,” Michael explained.
By “left,” Michael explained he meant that when he was sixteen years old, his mother abandoned him physically, actually moving to another town without him.
The abandonment hit the teen at a time of his life that had already became frantic and overwhelming. The constant moving from school to school, combined with Michael having a disability, had left him flailing academically. The teenager’s cries for help had led to a string of temporary stays in other residences for him, like mental health facilities and group homes.
Michael said life in a group home was not always the ideal experience, as he was often the victim of bullying because he was gay. Sometimes, other residents would steal his belongings.
Michael said he laid awake almost every night, unable to sleep. As the teen remained homeless, his adoptive mother did not choose to maintain in contact with him. “I didn’t ever react, because it’s her choice to be a mom to me, and she wasn’t that, so it doesn’t really matter,” he said with a shrug.
Being a homeless teenager led Michael into many dangerous situations. He stated he made a few friends “on the streets,” and eventually started staying in a hotel and taking the bus with them. Michael said his new friends were older than him, and one of the young women staying with him was pregnant. The living situation was often volatile, and Michael said he suffered verbal abuse from them, too. He eventually moved out.
The stress in Michael’s life was reaching a boiling point. He was sixteen and homeless, and eventually, his desperate behavior landed him into a home he had never wanted: a detention facility.
From the justice system to Palmetto Place
Michael ended up in the justice system after his temper flared while staying in a group home. Michael was victimized by some of the other residents. He said the peer abuse began after he disclosed to some of the other youths that he was gay.
Michael said that he did report incidents to staff members, but he did not feel his complaints were being taken seriously. “There were multiple people bullying me, because of my orientation,” Michael recalled. “The staff wouldn’t do anything. One day, I just got fed up and left campus. I started kicking cars and hitting cars. I turned 18 last August, and I got a disorderly conduct charge last October.”
At that point, Michael admits he was losing hope for his life. Then, he was referred to Palmetto Place, a non-profit children shelter’s in Columbia.
He was initially accepted into the center’s basic program, a 21-day emergency shelter. Those first few weeks led to Michael being accepted into the shelter’s unaccompanied youth program, where residents can reside in a group home operated by the shelter until they are 21. Currently, there are 19 boys and girls living in the teen house, and 20 others living in foster care. According to Michael, Palmetto Place has changed his life.
Michael said as part of the unaccompanied youth program, the shelter staff has been working diligently at his side, supporting him and helping him change his life. They taught him to budget and manage a checking account; Michael now has his own account and is learning to save money. He attends group sessions that focus on improving the residents’ life skills, such as personal healthcare, bill paying, nutrition, and sexual education. But he gets most excited, though, when he explains how the shelter staff encouraged him to get his first job.
After preparing for an interview with the help of Palmetto Place staff, Michael earned a job at a local restaurant. The staff provides Michael with transportation back and forth from work, and, months later, he still beams with pride when he talks about his job. “This really is my first job—I have never been employed,” he said. “All my life, people were telling me I was never going to have a job, because I have a disability…they said people wouldn’t want someone like me in the work force. My sister, mama, doctors, therapists, people around me, they all said that. It just felt good to prove those people wrong.”
Michael said the most rewarding part of having a job was when he paid his first phone bill. At that moment, he realized he was capable of a different life than he had ever known.
“Before I was at Palmetto Place, I was at my breaking point,” Michael admitted. “But now, everything actually feels really good. I think I’m going to go somewhere. I think I can actually be what I want to be.” Michael’s current plans include pursuing education, being active in church, saving for a vehicle, and getting his own home. But while he saves and works toward those goals, Palmetto Place has given him the most meaningful home he has ever had.
Finding hope: A changed outcome
When he isn’t working, Michael attends life skills training classes and group sessions. He also helps the shelter staff with yardwork and pitches in with the other teens on household chores. He planted a garden at the teen house and tends to it every morning.
Palmetto Place’s project coordinator, Grace Bennett, said she was surprised when Michael told her he had acted out and lost his temper so much in his early teen years. “The Michael I know is sweet and cares about people and goes out of his way to help,” said Bennett. “What [he was] describing is a child who was hurt and hungry, and just needed a little bit of support and love.”
The blossoming garden he helped plant outside the teen shelter is actually rather metaphoric for Michael’s life right now. “Now they are telling me, ‘you can actually achieve what you want to achieve. They said you can be anything you want to be, and we will help you with it!’” he shared. “I thank God for that, for people like that.”
Michael’s relationships with his peers are very different now, too. He lives in a home with close to twenty other teenagers that is monitored 24/7 by on-site staff members. “The people here don’t really care about my sexual orientation,” he said. “They said it really doesn’t matter. You’re a person, and you’re going to be different from other people sometimes, and that’s okay.”
Not only has Michael made true friends at Palmetto Place, he has also learned better coping skills for his frustrations. He no longer is acting out and getting into trouble. “I do think back about my mom and what she has done, sometimes,” he admitted. “But I’m not going to get mad anymore. I go outside and shoot basketball to calm down now. Sometimes I listen to music on my phone, mostly gospel and rap.”
Michael is no longer being bullied. He has become a very outgoing person who makes it a goal to keep the shelter’s staff and the other residents laughing and cheerful. He and the other teens have pizza and movie nights sometimes, and he gets to know everyone deeply in therapy sessions. Michael said he feels like the other teens are all his friends, and they encourage each other as they all work toward sustainable independent living.
“Michael is one of my favorite kids who I’ve ever had a chance to interact with,” said Jill Lawson, executive director of Palmetto Place. “For someone who has experienced so much trauma and hardship in his life, every time I see him, he has a smile on his face and a spring in his step. He’s constantly singing! I think he keeps the teen house very light-hearted and fun. Everybody’s always laughing, and he has a contagious sense of happiness that rubs off on the others.”
Lawson said she is impressed by Michael’s kind, fun-loving nature, given the abuse he has endured in his life. “He possesses so much hope for himself, and he really sees good in people, which is kind of rare. It’s hard for people, after you’ve been disappointed by the ones who are supposed to love you the most,” she said. “He’s continuously moving toward positive outcomes.”
The teenager is proud that he just bought his very first TV, for his room at the teen house. But when asked what else he has now that he never had before, Michael immediately replied, “A family.”
His own new family
“I’m a lot safer and a lot happier now, and I have people on my side,” he said. “I have a list of people who believe I can achieve my goals. It has changed my life, and the people here…the house parents have really become people in my life who I know I can depend on. I can come to them and be like, ‘Hey, I have an issue I want to talk about,’ and they’ll sit down and really talk to me about it. They take their time and consider my feelings. I guess that’s really what I’ve always been looking for.”
One of the house parents in particular has been a driving force of positivity for Michael since he has stayed in the shelter. Her name is Beverly Sumter, but to Michael, she’s “Mama.”
“When I first got here, my second day living here, I just saw a shiny light. Miss Beverly felt like a mom to me. She was really the first person to come up and ask me how I was doing with everything,” said Michael.
Sumter laughed when asked if she minded the nickname. “Of course not,” she said.
“When I started calling her mom, she didn’t have a problem with it. She said, ‘Why do you call me that? Do I really seem like your mom?’ ” said Michael. “I said, yes, because you did not deny you were my mom when I first said it. And a lot of other people would, because they don’t know my background or who they’re up against.”
As Michael works toward pursuing his dream of being a police detective, he can’t help but to reflect on his own childhood, which was rocked with abuse and negligence. “It makes me really mad when I do think about that. I want to be the person to change that for someone. It’s really bad, kids growing up hurt and abused physically…Really, nobody should have to go through what I went through, it’s harsh.”
Michael is not sure where his sisters are, but he believes they may be abusing drugs and still living transiently with their mother. He expressed empathy for his younger sister, who is 16 now, and has also fallen into the juvenile justice system as he did.
Midlands Anchor closed the interview with Michael with one final question: “If you could talk to a young LGBT teen who is struggling with some of the things you went through, what would you say to them?”
Michael responded, “It really hurts me to see people who are LGBT being discriminated against and bullied, and I really want to do something about it. If I could say something, I would just tell a kid in that situation, ‘It’s going to be okay. You’re going to find somebody who supports you—you will have that moment where someone builds you up and gives you strength.’ I know, because I had somebody do it for me.”
Michael is not alone; according to research from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, about 40% of homeless youths who are served by different agencies identify as LGBT. Additionally, national research confirms that African-American youths are disproportionately represented in homeless populations.
For more information on how you can help Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter combat teen homelessness, visit www.palmettoplacesheter.org.