On a cold night four months ago, La'Quita Carter took a pillow from the trunk of her car, climbed into the back seat and wrapped herself in an old blanket.
A polar blast was sliding south, prompting sheet-draped outdoor foliage and the opening of Tampa's shelters.
La'Quita was 18 that cold night and needed a few hours of sleep before school. She had parked outside an apartment building and, as usual, she was scared. She had nightmares of someone breaking in to her car to get her. She was scared to tell anyone she was homeless, scared of what might happen to her in the system.
La'Quita pondered her situation as she shivered and turned the engine on to warm up.
"Why is my life this way?"
In the morning, she would drive to school early enough to slip in to the teachers bathroom where there was a stall with a sink. She would style her hair and brush her teeth. After school — she was on the track team — she would take a shower in the girls locker room.
It was her senior year at Blake High School. La'Quita still had hope.
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There are hundreds of homeless kids in the county's schools, say those who work with them.
How does it happen?
La'Quita doesn't remember ever living with her father, who she said has been in and out of jail throughout her life. Her mother was 15 when La'Quita was born and had to drop out of school. La'Quita went to several elementary schools in Tampa, and Madison and Monroe middle schools. In middle school, she started running track. She auditioned for the musical theater arts magnet at Blake High School and got in.
La'Quita liked school, where the rules were consistent and the subjects interesting. But things lacked structure at home and there was no peace between daughter and mother.
"We kept bumping heads," La'Quita said.
The bumps got bad in her sophomore year. She didn't want to go home after school.
La'Quita had to move out.
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La'Quita stayed with a cousin and with a friend for a while. She worked about 20 hours a week at McDonald's since she was 16. But after a manager cut her hours, she applied at AT&T. When an interviewer told her he didn't think she would be a good fit, she was dismayed. But she came back and asked for another interview. She needed the job and would work hard, she said. Her persistence paid off.
She saved her money to make a down payment on a gray Ford Fusion. Everything she owned was in that car with her. The trunk held a bag of toiletries on the right side, clothes in the middle and bedding on the left.
She worked weekdays from 5 to 11 p.m.
In September, she started sleeping in her car. The bump between the back seats made her back ache. Some nights she was hungry. Once, a police officer tapped on her window while she slept outside an apartment building. She told him she was waiting for someone. He told her she had to leave.
She dreamed of going to college on a track scholarship, but was not sure how to make it happen. She hadn't yet passed the FCAT. She didn't know how to apply to colleges.
Some of the adults she knew questioned whether she would graduate. That hurt, La'Quita said.
"It felt like they already expected me to fail," she said.
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Keeping a secret can be lonely. La'Quita never hinted to classmates, even to closest friends, that she was homeless.
"Everyone just thought I had it all together," she said.
She was born small and was followed by a sister the next year. That baby was too small. She had died. La'Quita often wonders what it would be like if she lived.
"What would she look like? Would she look better than me?" La'Quita wondered. "Would we be close? I don't have anyone to be close with. If something happens to me, I wouldn't tell anyone. I'm scared to open up to people."
For some reason on that cold morning, La'Quita told her secret to a social worker. The counselor steered her to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit that works with Hillsborough County high schools. Their goal is to eliminate the cycle of homelessness, by wrapping students in a grueling schedule of tutoring and classes in leadership, etiquette and motivation. Founder Vicki Sokolik serves as a super mom. She says she sees the physical change in the kids after a month in the program as they drop stress. Hope changes everything, Sokolik says.
La'Quita moved into the program's transitional home, Haven Poe, a former runaway shelter off Bayshore Boulevard in March. She was accepted into Saint Leo University and plans to major in sports medicine or business.
La'Quita, now 19, passed the FCAT two weeks ago and went to prom last week. She is set to graduate June 6.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.