When Kevin Moreno awoke one night and saw his grandmother, mother, brother and sister huddled together sleeping on the floor of a cramped one-room studio space, he was overcome with sadness.
"Is this how we’re always going to live?" he thought.
At 16, Moreno’s life was turned upside down. When his father was incarcerated on drug charges and eventually deported, Moreno was suddenly thrust into a key family role.
For his mother, Teresa Gamez Pérez, the news meant becoming a single mom. Shortly after the news of his arrest, Gamez Pérez confirmed she was pregnant with her third child. Her wages as a housekeeper weren’t enough to keep the family afloat, and her limited English skills and pregnancy made it difficult to find a better paying job.
During a family meeting, Moreno’s uncle broke the news to the teenager that as the eldest sibling, his help was needed to push the family forward.
"I wanted to hang out with my friends and be a teenager," he says. But Moreno understood the dire circumstances. With a new baby sister on the way, Moreno began juggling high school with working after school and on weekends at Old Navy and Walgreens to help pay the family’s bills.
Without the father’s income, they could no longer afford their North Austin apartment and had to move into a one-room studio space in a friend’s backyard. The move was supposed to be temporary until the baby was born, but years went by as the family struggled to make ends meet. In the meantime, Moreno grew exhausted maintaining a grueling schedule.
"Sometimes I’d fall asleep in class," he says. "Other times, when I’d doze off, I’d just get up and leave." Moreno’s mom started to get calls about his excessive school absences. He’d begun taking the city bus anywhere but school. His grades dipped, but Moreno’s mind was elsewhere. He needed to help buy diapers and food for his little sister, Avia.
One day Moreno got caught in the rain while riding the bus to Walgreens and got his sneakers and socks soaked.
"I went to the bathroom to dry myself off and all I could think was, ‘Why us? What did we do to deserve this?’"
On the night he’d caught a glimpse of his family sleeping on the floor of a place where they had outworn their welcome, the teenager desperately searched online for "help for someone at risk of being homeless."
The first place that appeared on his search was the nonprofit Foundation Communities, which helps families in need find affordable housing. Moreno, who knew nothing of apartment hunting or establishing credit, managed to move the family to a two-bedroom apartment.
People often mistake Moreno, now 23, for someone older. He’s had to grow up fast and carries himself with maturity beyond his years. Moreno graduated high school and now works as a patient services specialist at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation. He continues to provide for his family but worries about securing a better future for all of them.
Moreno hopes to attend college one day and study health care administration, but in the meantime he’s proud that his sacrifice has led to his younger brother, Dylan, becoming a University of Texas at Austin biology student.
"It’s definitely been a struggle," he says. "But it’s taught me a lot."
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