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Murray Journal

Former Murray grad recounts his homelessness, urges student to support those in need

Feb 03, 2023 10:26AM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High graduate Thomas Schwab tells Murray School District secondary students his story of being homeless and to help one another and not to be ashamed to ask for help if they need food, clothing or other items at school. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

In 2018, Thomas Schwab graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average from Murray High School.

“I got dropped off my sophomore year with no clue what to do; I hadn’t done school in five years,” he told an auditorium full of Hillcrest Junior High students. “I didn’t know how social circles work or who sat where or anything else.”

Schwab had spent those years skipping school, working odd jobs to help his family survive. When his dad stopped working, they lost their house and moved into a trailer park where Schwab would put in retaining walls or fix things. 
Life didn’t get easier for him when his parents split. Initially, he lived with his siblings and mom in a house in the Salt Lake area. He enrolled at Murray High, explaining to his counselor that he missed his later elementary years as well as all of junior high. 
However, Schwab said finances grew thin when his mother was pulled out of work, had to rent a car, to go to court in the St. George area where they initially lived with his father. When his mom lost her job and moved to Spanish Fork to be a caretaker, Schwab lived on the streets and worked part-time at Burger King so he could continue school at Murray High.
He said he went unnoticed.
“Take a look around at the people around you, in front of you, behind you. Look at who you know, who you don’t know. How much do you know about the deal that they’re going through? Do you notice struggles and difficulties?” Schwab said. “I had a series of unfortunate circumstances that broke the heart of my entire life and I moved from one place to a bad place to something even worse. When there was no place to call home, I had nowhere to go.”

He remembered one winter night, sleeping outside in a sleeping bag that was supposed to be waterproof, but instead he woke in the middle of the night to find it filled with freezing water. 

“I was freezing cold. I just got out and started running to get my feeling back in my legs. I ran down the streets in nothing but gym shorts and a tank top in freezing rain in the middle of the night. I found a dumpster and I climbed inside of to keep myself dry. It was one of the worst and most difficult nights of my life. In the morning, I just went to classes as if nothing ever happened. Not a single person knew or noticed,” Schwab said. “I would often spend extra time in school every single day. Education is very important, but I would spend time in school not just because I love learning, but because I wanted to get away from a reality that I didn’t have a bed.”

Eventually, after the police arrested both his parents, he was taken to a crisis center and got assistance.

“There is help and it’s not something you have to be ashamed to ask for. I know now many people would have reached out if they had known I was homeless. Maybe that would have made my life better, easier. That only will happen if you guys talk to each other, listen to each other. Take a little bit extra effort out of your day to help each other, care about each other,” Schwab said. “And if it’s happening to you, raise your voice up and speak. I never thought to say something. I was convinced I had to deal with it, but your counselors and teachers can be a great support. If there was a room of supplies, I would have taken advantage of that, 100%. So many times, I came to school and my clothes weren’t suited for the weather or my shoes had holes. I would have killed to walk into school with a new pair of shoes or a sweater that fit.”

Hillcrest Junior High has its Hillcrest Home Goods, a classroom filled with personal hygiene items, clothing, food and school supplies available for students who need a helping hand or even if someone needs a snack, said school social worker Courtney Nolan.

Students can take a backpack and fill it with needed items, which are kept organized by the school’s student body officers, Latinos-in-Action and dance company.  

“This is student organized,” Nolan said. “Students know what other students like. Students just want snacks, not heavy cans. They want clothes that are comfortable. We have deodorant and body wash and things they need. COVID hit our families hard and access to things are more expensive than they have been in the past. We still have a huge stigma in our country talking about how we do struggle. We’re just really trying to make this an inviting place so that kids know we’re here to take care of each other.”

Nolan, who said her No. 1 priority to make kids feel safe, said that “kids cannot learn unless they have a full belly, they’re clothed and feel safe. Wrapping our minds around taking care of the whole child is something that our state and country needs to embrace. Schools are rapidly changing and need to because students are here 80% of their day and social agencies are completely overwhelmed. We’re just trying to help and break down the barriers one step at a time. I don’t want them embarrassed if they aren’t making ends meet at home. I just say, ‘Come say hi, grab a snack, grab what you need.’ Anyone can grab anything. We don’t ask questions.”

Hillcrest ninth-graders Paula Borbon and Lilly Moore have helped stock shelves in the Home Goods room. Some of those donations have come from a schoolwide drive.

“It’s a good idea because some kids might be struggling right now and like the Murray graduate said, it’s OK get help and talk to people,” Lilly said.

Paula added that she liked being reminded to encourage her to reach out to peers “because a lot of people are afraid to ask for help.”

They said they’ve known peers who have needed help with school fees and have gotten assistance from counselors and administration.

“I’m glad to be able to help. I don’t know who it is who needs help, but it’s nice to know people are getting the help they need,” Paula said.

Lilly added: “He shared an important message when he asked us to look around. He pointed out that you never know everybody’s full story. So, we need to listen, be kind and help someone out.”

Their assistant principal, Lia Smith, agrees.

“We all come from different struggles and Thomas’ message on being there for each other to create a good school community environment is important and relevant for our kids to hear,” she said. “Everyone goes through difficult times, so we all need to love each other and help out.”

Smith taught at Murray High before going into administration. Schwab’s alma mater also hosted him and let students know of its new location in an upstairs room that has supplies for students.

While several schools have supplies, volunteer Pam Andersen helps coordinate Murray High’s effort. Many of the donations come from church congregations and civic organizations.

“We ask for something simple such as consider buying a box of granola bars, nothing that’s too hurtful on the budget, and drop them off,” she said. “If everybody buys one, it will help each teacher to share with kids in class. Often teachers are using their own money to buy snacks for the kids.”

Murray High physics teacher Aaron Daniels said the mentality has changed from when a kid would fall asleep and get in trouble to now showing compassion.

“You don’t know what’s going on, if these kids haven’t slept or eaten, if they don’t feel safe at home,” he said. “We now have snacks like apple slices, applesauce and granola bars in every classroom. Kids are pretty quiet about it, but every week my basket is almost always gone.”

Andersen said other donations such as ramen, cup of soup or microwave macaroni and cheese are popular because it’s grab-and-go and easy for students to make. Mechanical pencil lead, glue sticks, toothbrushes and hoodies, sweats and pants are popular items.

“Students can talk to a teacher, counselor, administration to gain access if the door isn’t open,” she said. “I feel blessed we’re able to help students, and I worry some kids who really need help aren’t in school. Like Thomas said, we need to know our neighbors, take time to notice and be willing to help.”