This Hazen High student was shocked to learn what some of her classmates were going through and wishes it were easier for them to talk about it and get help.

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(Editor’s note: This is the ninth of about a dozen student essays we’ll be publishing for this round of Education Lab’s Student Voices program, which is partnering this year with Project Homeless. Know a student with a story to tell about homelessness or education? Email Project Homeless’s engagement editor, Scott Greenstone, at sgreenstone@seattletimes.com.)

Never in my life have I worried about a place to stay, or where I’ll be sleeping at night. When I thought of a homeless person, an older man holding a cardboard sign at an intersection came to mind, a sight I saw often when my family went to downtown Seattle.

Then, two months into my junior year at Hazen High School in Renton, Ashley showed up in our class. She was shy and kept to herself, but she and I instantly hit it off.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

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I asked her why she moved here. “My mom kicked me out,” she said.

Startled and not knowing what to say, I just stared at her. She shrugged before replying, “It’s okay, I’ve been kicked out before and sofa surfing for a while. I’m used to it.”

Over the next few days, she told me more. She’d often switched between her divorced parents, but eventually she and her mom moved in with her mom’s dad, where they lived in his shed in the backyard. That did not last long, and Ashley’s mom kicked her out. She did not know why.

Each day, she rushed to finish her homework by the end of class because she didn’t have access to a computer. I suggested using the school library’s computers after school, but she had a 7-hour shift to work at a restaurant.

A week later, my classmate Veronica asked me how I was doing.

“Honestly,” I said, “I am kind of stunned. I recently found out one of my classmates deals with being homeless.”

Veronica looked surprised. “Wait, I never told you? I sofa surfed for 4 years.”

Her mom was a single mother and had her at the age of 16 (her mother was one of six children born to a single mom, as well). When times were tough and her mom could not provide, Veronica found herself sofa-surfing: “You never know when the bed is safe. I’ve slept on so many beds, couches, floors and you never know when it’s secure.”

Veronica and I had known of each other three years but she’d never told me – in fact, she’d only told two other people at school.

I saw homelessness in Seattle, but I had not witnessed it in my community, where — like in many suburban school districts — numbers of homeless students increased 33 percent between 2012 and 2017. My school never addressed it either, and since I went to one of the “nicer” schools in Renton, the idea that there could be homeless students had never crossed my mind. Not once had I heard the phrase “sofa surfing” before. How many more of my classmates had this secret?

Veronica told me she wasn’t the type to open up about the issues she went through. She felt like no one cared. She’d attempted to talk to a school counselor, but she said she only received one-word responses and felt like the counselor was going through a script from a book on how to handle these situations.

I soon discovered there was yet another homeless kid in one of my classes. Within just a few months, I went from not knowing teens could be homeless, to learning that I shared classrooms with three. And that was just those that I knew of.

Meanwhile, Ashley ran out of sofas to surf on and didn’t want to stay with her dad any longer, so it was only a couple of weeks until she left school. The last thing she told me was, “I definitely think schools and society as a whole need to make it aware that teen homelessness is an issue and that it is a problem that needs a lot more attention than it gets.”

I wanted more people to know what I found out, so that month I wrote a story about teen homelessness for the school newspaper. As part of my research, I discovered there were almost 600 homeless students in my school district. A school administrator told me Hazen bused in some kids from as far as Auburn.

A week after the paper was published, a boy who had recently transferred into my civics class came up to me.

“My dad kicked me out last year and I’ve been sofa surfing ever since,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone else at this school went through what I do, and I never told anyone because I thought I would be judged.”

Learning that I had been going to class with four homeless students made me realize how you truly never know what others are going through. By sweeping it under the carpet, those who do face the problem will stay hidden as well.  If homeless students’ only stable thing in their lives is school, then why aren’t we talking about their struggles at school?