Walking through the night is what you do when you can’t go back to what is called home – or there is no home.
When Isaiah Miler, now 18, walked at night, he recognized fellow travelers. There was always one kid, walking on the other side of the street. He, too, had a backpack and walked with purpose. But Miler could tell. He knew that person was homeless, too.
Miler has squatted with his family where roaches and rats crawled around at night. He has lived in a tent and in abandoned houses where there was no electricity, heat or running water. He’s eaten from dumpsters. It’s unbelievable, he said, what you can find to eat in them.
Against almost insurmountable odds, Miler will graduate Friday from North Side High School along with his peers. He joins thousands of area seniors taking the stage in the coming days to receive their diplomas, but few had to make the kind of reach upward out of a downward spiral to graduate on time.
"I had to survive," said Miler, who pulled himself together for junior year with the help of people who cared.
After attending school for only 45 days during his sophomore year, Miler ended up with a grade-point average just shy of 3.0 and will attend Valparaiso in the fall, the recipient of the Lilly Endowment Scholarship, a full scholarship with a $900 stipend for books.
In Allen County, between 2,500 to 3,000 children are homeless, counting unaccompanied youth between 18 and 25 years of age, said Donovan Coley Sr., CEO and senior pastor for The Rescue Mission in downtown Fort Wayne.
There are about 500 homeless school-age children in the Fort Wayne Community Schools area and an equal number in East Allen County Schools, although homeless children live in all four Allen County school districts, Coley added.
"We have a generation that is literally raising themselves because many of them have aged out of the foster care system as well. You have a growing culture of young people fending for themselves, by themselves and for themselves," Coley said.
Miler is remarkably forward-looking for someone who has been through what many will never endure. He knows his father lives in Ohio and two of three half brothers still live with his mother, "who is doing much better," he said. Grandparents "weren’t in the picture," he added. He now lives on his own.
"Children are so resilient. They are so amazing," said lawyer Cynthia Amber, whom Miler refers to as his guardian angel.
Miler met Amber, a former magistrate, hearing officer and children’s advocate, through her daughter, Annalisa, a couple of years ago when the two teenagers had mutual friends. What Amber saw was a kid who was "very, very, very intelligent" – but also "a kid who had no rules."
She told him he was welcome to stay at her home, but there would be strict guidelines. Those guidelines included completing all his homework before he used his cellphone and going to bed by 10 p.m. Anything lower than an A on a weekly progress report resulted in being grounded for the weekend.
She estimates that Miler stayed at her home and at other homes, a phenomenon known as "couch surfing," for six to eight months. In addition to the rules, there were weekend trips to colleges and a lot of support, which included demands that he apply for scholarships.
"She provided structure," Coley said. "They’re looking for structure that also gives them a sense of responsibility and an opportunity to dream. If you have an unstructured environment and they have no skin in the game, that will definitely lead to juvenile delinquency."
It was with the Ambers that Miler visited Valparaiso University. He knew it would be his first choice, even though there were other schools that were "way cooler than Valpo," said Miler, who attended a variety of public and parochial schools while growing up.
He intends to study finance and business and is leaning toward becoming a personal financial adviser.
"I love math and I’m good with people," he said.
Kendra Morris, his guidance counselor at North Side, has seen Miler change from a student who was too independent to someone who was willing to accept help.
"There’s no way I would get here alone," Miler said. "People who have no reason to care about me have done so much. You can’t forget where you came from."
For now, he has his own apartment, which a social services agency helped him find. He has an after-school job, sometimes more than one, although he suffers from fibromyalgia, the reason he gave up sports. His grade-point average for the first semester of his senior year was a 3.85.
He dreams of helping other kids who are in the same situation as he was, a conviction strengthened when he went to Washington, D.C., this year as a 2015 Horatio Alger National Scholar, an honor given to two high school students in each state every year.
"I know I can’t end homelessness," he said with the wisdom of someone twice his age. "But I know I can make a difference."