Hundreds of Monroe High School seniors crossed the stage at Comcast Arena in Everett Saturday to get their high school diplomas, but few crossed as many hurdles to get to that stage as senior Joshua Armitage.
The young man, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, got through his last semester while homeless, sleeping in front of Speedway Chevrolet sometimes and showering at the school, until community members raised money to set him up in at the Brookside Motel, where he is currently staying.
Friday he was an ebullient young man in a snappy fedora,still beaming over the graduation party that Monroe emergency resource center Take the Next Step threw for him earlier in the week.
But his broad grin belied the difficulty of his high school career.
School was never easy for Armitage.
Socially awkward and prone to outbursts of temper associated with his diagnosis of Asperger’s, a syndrome on the autism spectrum, he was bullied in school, and in turn, he admits, he bullied others.
His temper led to strained relationships with his parents, too.
“I had anger issues, basically, and got in a lot of trouble,” he said. “It would be over little thing like turning off the TV or going to bed, and I would do some conflict thing against my parents, and it would end up with the police coming to my house. And after a while, they decided to get me out of the house.”
It was February when Josh found himself on the street with nowhere to go.
“My first thought was, I was in school, and I just wanted to get my school stuff done,” he said. “So I always stayed near the school road.”
He’d set his alarm and sit in front of the doors of Speedway Chevrolet, sleeping fitfully, struggling with the effects of being off his medications.
His parents dropped off new medications and some clothes for him at the school after a while, and he began showering and changing in the locker room before class.
On really cold nights, he headed to the Cold Weather Shelter.
He had one free period per day that he used to complete his school work, and fortunately he’d already finished his culminating challenge, the final big project all seniors must complete, so he didn’t have homework most of the time.
He was getting by, but volunteers at the Cold Weather Shelter noticed him and grew concerned. One of the assistants drove him to Take the Next Step, a resource center for people in crisis or in need.
Josh also showed up at the Monroe Boys and Girls Club one Sunday, hoping to find the Teen Center open for a warm place to stay, and instead finding a meeting of the Calvary Chapel, a small congregation that meets in the building.
“He stayed and we fed him,” said Teri Baca, who also volunteers at Take the Next Step.
Josh liked the church, and membership stabilized him, he said.
“I got bullied at school, and so I decided I should bully too, but I got tired of bullying people, and decided I should change,” he said.
Meanwhile, church members and other concerned community members tried to find a place for Josh to stay.
“That’s been a big community effort,” said Janos Kendall, director of the Drop In Center at Take the Next Step. “Teri and I reached out to organizations and private donors.”
A homeowners association donated enough money to put Josh up for a month at the Brookside Motel, a motel on Woods Creek where many low-income people live.
The first month was almost $1,000, but the owner gave Josh increasing discounts each month.
The Arc of Snohomish County and the Volunteers of America helped out, and Josh got the room for a couple more months.
When Josh had a bicycle accident and broke his arm and needed surgery, community members also helped him coordinate his care.
But people who were looking in on Josh got worried. Other homeless people were staying in his place sometimes, and once visitors found Josh sleeping on the couch while a couple of guests slept in his bed.
Concerned that people might be taking advantage of the young man, they recruited a man they knew and trusted to keep an eye on him. And Josh wasn’t getting to school every day, and needed some help staying on track.
Mark, a homeless veteran, had been living in a tent for some time.
“We’ve gotten to know him pretty well and trusted him to pair up with Josh, and he was staying on the river in a tent and having an issue with mice and had been upset about it,” said Kendall. “We thought it would be a good match if we could provide shelter for him.”
Mark had had a previous life experience caring for a boy with Down’s Syndrome, and took Josh’s plight to heart. They shared lodging at the Brookside, and Josh’s attendance improved.
June finally arrived, and Joshua had done it; he’d earned his diploma, and his supporters threw a party at Take the Next Step Wednesday.
“There were 24 people that showed up and a couple of homeless friends that came by. A store clerk fro My L.A. Fashion attended and through some donations we were able to get him some clothes he wanted from the store,” said Kendall. “And one of his teachers came, and his pastor, and another pastor, and elders from our church, and even his old bus driver Tim.”
“He felt very loved that night, I think,” said Baca.
His future now looks a lot brighter than it did six months ago. He graduated with a 3.5 GPA and plans to go to school to program video games at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, where he has scholarships.
Now Mark has a chance to get more permanent housing, and he plans to offer Josh a place to stay there for a while. Josh is looking for a summer job, too.
And he thinks what he has learned in the last few months will help him succeed in college and control his temper.
“I’ll be able to know what to do, since I practiced this whole entire year,” he said. “I was able to practice behaving this year. I will be able to continue though the college years.”