Donald Liles: He's 14 and homeless

Published February 18, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -Donald Liles likes video games, action-adventure movies and double cheeseburgers.

He's not much into designer clothes, shuns jewelry, and thinks girls are "yucky" - at least most of the time.

Donald is like most other 14-year-old boys, except for one thing. He is homeless.

He has never spent the night in a car or a tent city. But he slept for 10 months on a futon at his mom's friend's house. Before that, he lived in two different motels.

Now, he and his mom are staying at Resurrection House, a St. Petersburg shelter that helps homeless families get back on their feet.

For the first time in a long time, things feel normal. But not perfect.

"I'd like to have a house with my dad," he said. "I'd like to have a pet. I'd like to have every game system known to man. But we can't go out and buy whatever we want. My mom's on a budget."

Donald is among hundreds of children in Pinellas County who are defined, by federal law, as homeless. That definition includes any child who has no regular nighttime residence. It includes those who live in shelters, motels and "doubled-up" arrangements with friends or relatives.

Donald has experienced all three, but things weren't always that rough. One of his earliest memories is his dad's strapping him to the back of a bicycle and pedaling him to day care. The family was living in an apartment in Clearwater then.

He remembers moving to a mobile home park when he was 6 or 7.

"We lived in the trailer for a while, then we moved to a Red Roof Inn, then to a Days Inn," Donald said.

Along the way, he's lost things. Stuffed animals, books, games. He misses his cats the most. And the few friends he managed to make.

"I'm not good at making friends, at least not kids my age," Donald said. "A lot of people consider me immature."

A seventh-grader at Meadowlawn Middle School, Donald has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He is easily distracted and sometimes has a hard time sitting still.

When he and his mom moved from Clearwater to St. Petersburg in October, he changed schools. At Dunedin Highland Middle, he was in classes with other special education students. Now he's being "mainstreamed" with general education students.

He thinks his grades have suffered a little as a result, but he wonders if it also could be because he changed doctors - and medications. Change is still hard for him, he says, even though his life has been filled with it.

"I've always felt different," Donald said. "I'm something of an outcast. People are mean to me. I guess it's because of my behavior problems."

He says he has met a few other kids at the shelter. But most of them are younger. None of them go to his school.

He remembers when times were better. He remembers going to McDonald's for double cheeseburgers and to theme parks in Orlando. He remembers not eating the food on his plate if he didn't like it. He remembers getting the things he asked for.

All that changed when he was about 10, Donald says. His mom and dad started fighting, and finally, his dad moved out.

Donald's mother, Ann, says the trouble really started long before that. Things already were strained by the time Donald's dad quit his job with the city of Clearwater and began working a string of low-paying convenience store jobs.

Ann, now 42, had dropped out of college. They got rid of their car because they couldn't afford the insurance. Before long they were evicted and started living at the Red Roof Inn, turning over most of Michael's paycheck to the desk clerk for rent.

Ann has tried to spare Donald from as much of the harsh reality as possible. But in October, when her friend's lease was about to expire, she knew she had run out of options.

Still, she resisted using the word "homeless" with Donald.

"I tried to minimize it because I didn't want him to worry," says Ann, who works as an information technology analyst but is dogged by credit problems. "I don't think he understood how close we were to having to sleep in the car."

It turns out Donald had known things were shaky for a long time.

"My mom and dad talked about maybe ending up on the street," he said. "I worried about it at first. But I try to just take things as they come."

He says he has never gotten angry at his parents, and he has never faulted them. And he has never really thought of himself as homeless.

"If you consider it not having enough money to get a house, yes, I'm homeless," he said. "But I could call this place home. So I'm not homeless."