Brenda Rufener considers her debut novel, about a homeless teenage girl, “a tribute to those strong and resilient teens” she’s worked with through years of volunteering with programs that help the homeless.
“I wanted to present a real picture of a girl who was more than her homelessness, more than her crisis,” she said in a recent interview.
Rufener has never been on her own on the streets, but when she was a teenager in Oregon, she and her family were “on the brink of homelessness.”
“My parents went through a stage when they faced some housing insecurity,” said Rufener, who now lives in North Carolina. “For a short time, my family was essentially homeless.
“My parents had a difficult time affording rent. We were waiting for a house to come up that we could afford, and that wasn’t happening.”
Fortunately, she said, they had family nearby. They had no home of their own, but she at least had someone’s couch to sleep on. That experience has stayed with Rufener as an awareness of and determination to help the homeless. When she was a student at Whitman College in Washington state, she volunteered with a literacy program. Many of the women she worked with were homeless, she said, but “what they lacked in resources they made up for in a hopeful attitude. They were positive, persistent, and I was really drawn to that.
“Had I known them when I was a teen, I would not have felt so alone in my situation,” she said.
The protagonist in her novel “Where I Live,” is a homeless, orphaned girl who is determined to make a good future for herself and her friends.
The book, Rufener’s first work of fiction, is intended for teenage readers. It grew out of what has been on her mind for years, and it represents a new direction for her writing.
“I’m a technical writer turned novelist,” she said.
In the past, her work has largely been in education, dealing with college rankings, synthesizing data and “drafting a lot of boring information.”
But she’s always sought opportunities to work with the homeless, even as she married, had a family and moved to North Carolina, where she lives “on the Raleigh-Durham border.”
Homelessness is a problem in this state just as elsewhere, with estimates of thousands of homeless public school students. Rufener said her husband knows of homeless students in classes he teaches at Wake Technical Community College.
“He doesn’t know it by them telling him, but he’s aware of it through advocacy groups they have on campus. There will be this homeless teen who doesn’t appear homeless and isn’t telling anybody, but they are there,” she said.
She’s also learned of a community of teens in Raleigh who live on the streets, looking out for one another, because they don’t feel safe at homeless shelters. In her volunteer work, she’s met homeless girls who are afraid to stay in shelters, and teens who have been “kicked out of their homes” after coming out as gay or transgender.
Rufener said she’s never met a homeless teenager who was living in a school, as her character in “Where I Live” does. She’d like to think, she said, that hiding out and slipping into a school after hours “would not be possible” today. Besides heightened security at schools, she said, “we have some great teachers and people who pay attention to these things.”
But then again, she said, the situation is not so far-fetched. She has known a family that was living in a storage shed at a shelter. “The family just wasn’t prepared to be with that shelter, but the teen in the family visited the shelter, and they were aware of the situation, and a lot of resources were being filtered in to that family.”
Her novel, she said, is “a work of fiction, and novelists can do whatever we want, but I tried to make it believable by describing her friends and her community.
“I might meet someone who says ‘this is my story,’ but I haven’t met them yet.”
She had her character live in the school, she said, to make the point that people are often not aware that someone is homeless.
“Here is a teen who’s someone we know, someone we care about, but we might not know she’s homeless. We get wrapped up in stereotypes of what we think homelessness might look like, but we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” she said.
Rufener has a 15-year-old daughter who was a great resource as she wrote the book. “She is pretty blunt with her critique, so I appreciate that. She tells me that it’s just a wonderful book and she loves it, but I’m not sure how biased she is.”
Rufener’s first book is set in Oregon, but her next one, also for young adults, will take place in the North Carolina mountains.
“We’ve only been in North Carolina a few years,” she said, “but we love it, and this is definitely where we want to stay. It’s so beautiful. We are exploring this state from north to south, east to west.”