In the summer after fifth-grade, Payson Herring found himself on the streets, living behind dingy car washes and eating stale food out of dumpsters. With both of his parents in jail and no one to look after him, he barely survived.
When he did show up to school, he was dirty, smelly and his attitude stunk worse than his clothes. Herring didn’t worry about high school graduation, he just wanted to make it through another night.
Meanwhile, for Emerald “Emi” Stacklie, after living through three of her mother’s failed suicide attempts and two of her own, life remains chaotic as a homeless student. She continues to bounce from one friend’s couch to another, and often spends the night in her truck.
The only stability she found in life came when she met her fiancé a year ago, but like her childhood, that was also ripped away. Five months ago, her fiancé died in a car crash that left Stacklie two weeks in the hospital for her own injuries.
Both Herring and Stacklie continue to face circumstances most teens will never dream of, but despite hardships — that include incarcerated or addicted parents, homelessness, medical conditions and tragedy — both have so far beaten the odds.
From the outside, both teens look normal, with designer-laced clothing and beautiful smiles, but what they have gone through is unbelievable.
Both teens agreed to an interview, hoping other homeless teens will come forward sooner for help. Payson High School has resources, including housing for homeless teens through the Payson Assisting Displaced Students (PADS) program launched last year.
Several students have already been placed with families through PADS, but many more homeless students continue to live with friends or relatives with some staying in their car or on the streets. Students that live “doubled-up,” with two or more families in the same home are also considered homeless.
Last year, the Payson Unified School District (PUSD) reported 363 homeless students in the district, an increase of 109 percent since 2007.
This year, the district estimates 400-plus students are without a permanent home.
For students who choose to find their own housing, the district has other ways to help. A federal grant allows Blanche Oakland, parent community liaison and homeless advocate, to help homeless students connect with programs and assistance like food stamps, free lunch at school, medical care at the Payson Christian Clinic and money for books.
“Before we got the grant I spent a lot of my own money,” Oakland said.
For Herring, a chaotic life has acted as the catalyst for his drive to succeed, but Stacklie is still struggling to fit all the pieces together. Why did this happen and why was I given this hand in life are questions she still struggles with daily.
Here is her story:
The third time Stacklie’s mother attempted suicide, she found her in the bathtub with her wrists slit and blood everywhere.
Suffering from bipolar and manic depressive disorder, it wasn’t unusual for her mother to put on dramatic displays.
As a child, Stacklie learned early that her mother could barely take care of herself, much less her. But Stacklie stuck by her mother, always making sure she was eating, taking her medications and even picking her up from the bar when she couldn’t drive home.
Every six months or so, Stacklie was shipped off to live with her father. This went on until eighth grade. In all, Stacklie attended 18 different schools.
By the eighth grade, Stacklie’s mother had gotten into drugs and her home life grew violent.
“When she started using drugs, she started throwing stuff at me,” she said.
Stacklie moved out to live with her father in Payson permanently. Things weren’t much better though. Stacklie and her father fought and by the beginning of her sophomore year, she was out of the house.
Stacklie has found herself couch surfing at friends’ homes.
Things looked up for a few months when Oakland placed Stacklie with a family.
The family was supportive, but when Stacklie started drinking, she was asked to leave.
Drinking has been a part of Stacklie’s life since she was an infant. With attention deficit disorder, her mother found rum was the only way to calm Stacklie down.
Now a high school student, Stacklie found life was too much to bear and she tried to take her life twice — mimicking what she had witnessed her mother do.
“At a young age, I was constantly thinking about it (suicide),” she said. “I was always blaming myself for her problems, I felt I was a burden.”
Luckily, Stacklie’s boyfriend, Dalton Joe Randall, saw that Stacklie was spiraling and asked her to move into his grandparents’ home with him.
Although relying on other people made her feel guilty, she moved in and found constancy for the first time.
“I still had troubles, but it was the most stability I ever had,” she said.
Sadly, on Dec. 17, as Stacklie and Randall drove to Pine, Stacklie lost control of the Jeep and the vehicle rolled. Randall died on scene and Stacklie spent two weeks in the hospital.
After the accident, she spent two weeks in counseling, but has not spoken with a counselor since.
Now, Stacklie finds it too painful to stay at Randall’s home. She even gave up cheerleading, despite being the varsity captain last year.
“It sucks being in his room and he is not there,” she said through tears.
Some nights, Stacklie sleeps in her truck because she can’t bear the memories.
After the accident, Stacklie started talking with her father again and she found support from his girlfriend. The school has also been helpful, even donating $250 as a graduation present.
Stacklie, who has taken nursing classes through NAVIT, is close to getting her LPN certification. With that, she plans to move to the Valley and work in a hospital after graduation.
“I have always helped others and I like helping,” she said.
Although she is reluctant to take help for herself, Stacklie seems determined to reach out to others.
“I think Emi will find her way in helping other people,” Oakland said.
Hearing Stacklie’s story is hard, Oakland admitted, “but we need to break this cycle.”
Many homeless students don’t tell anyone about their situation and we need them to come forward for help, she said.
“I want them to know they can get help and they don’t need to turn to drugs or suicide,” she said.
Payson Herring understands that change doesn’t happen overnight.
Growing up without a stable mother or father figure, Herring was angry for most of his youth.
It wasn’t until he found athletics that things finally started to turn around. Playing football gave Herring a direction and a focus after many lost years.
Just before sixth grade, Herring’s mother was put in jail, joining his father, who had already been there for some time.
Off and on for months, Herring lived on the streets, sleeping behind Bashas’ or car washes. From sixth through ninth grade, Herring didn’t attend school regularly and when he did, admits he was a brat to teachers.
“On the streets, I didn’t have a shower or washing machine so I went to school dirty,” he said. “When you only have a few clothes, people look down on you, especially when you stink.”
Eventually, Herring ended up bouncing around from friends’ home to home.
At school, teachers frequently kicked Herring out of class for his bad attitude.
“My attitude started to change throughout middle school,” he said. “But I was a butthead up till my freshman year.”
After a brief stint with his grandparents in California, Herring came back to Payson and moved in with David Carlen and his family.
“He had been adopted, so I looked up to him,” Herring said.
Partly through Carlen’s influence, Herring got more into football as a running back.
“I always had doubts, but football carried me through,” he said.
At school, few kids knew Herring was homeless. “I never knew about his situation,” said Josette DeLowe. “He is popular at school, being a football player everyone knows him.”
Homelessness does not discriminate, Oakland said. From someone as beautiful as Stacklie to an athletic star like Herring, anyone can be impacted by it.
However, unlike Stacklie, Herring has let others help him.
“I used to feel guilty, but now I know that they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t want to,” he said.
With the support of friends and his teammates, Herring has developed a new perspective.
No longer angry with his past, Herring began focusing on the future. He worked hard at football, put more effort into schoolwork and stayed away from drugs and alcohol.
Herring used his past to help shape what he was becoming.
“I am not even mad at my parents,” he said. “There is nothing they can do now about the past. What matters now is what happens in the future and what I do. I am making my future brighter.”
Herring has plans to adopt “at least three kids.” Using his own experiences, Herring said he could handle just about any child. “I want kids to grow up realizing alcohol does bad things,” he said.
Recently, Herring even reconciled with his father.
While Herring and Stacklie still struggle, both are graduating May 26 along with 163 Payson High classmates. Both have plans for their futures — Herring to serve in the military and eventually become a police officer and Stacklie will start work at a hospital as an LPN.
“I am very, very proud,” Oakland said. “We will miss them.”
Herring and Stacklie defied the odds and “bottom-line beat the system,” she added.