Connie King Leonard was teaching sixth grade in Eugene, Oregon, when the realities of living without housing struck her during an interaction with one of her top students.
“He was a good kid, did everything right, really nice, and then partway through the school year he quit bringing his science book,” she recalls. “I would say, ‘Johnny, where’s your science book?’ And it went on for a long time. To the point where I finally said, ‘Johnny, I want you to look through every inch of your room for that science book.’ And he whipped around and said, ‘There are five of us living in a camper on the back of a pickup truck. My science book is not there.’”
Leonard’s debut novel, Sleeping in My Jeans, released in early November by Ooligan Press, follows 16-year-old high school student Mattie, her younger sister, and their mother, who find themselves living in their car after domestic violence causes them to leave their house. The novel has met with largely positive critical reception, from Kirkus to Booklist, the former praising its "straightforward prose and sympathetic characters," and how the book "drives home how difficult life can be for young people on the street."
Not bad for an author who began her first book at the age of 59, after retiring from teaching in 2006. It took almost 12 years for her to complete the book and find a publisher. For her research, Leonard interviewed women staying in shelters in Eugene, police officers who came into contact with Eugene’s houseless population, and employees at the local library—and reflected on her own experiences working with houseless students.
As reported by Oregon's Department of Education, the number of houseless youth has risen over the years, to 21,576 for the 2017-18 school year.
“It’s unfair that people can have full-time jobs and still not be able to make rent,” Leonard says. “We lose sight of the fact that a cut in hours at work or a medical emergency can put people on the street.”
Students experiencing houselessness are nearly 87 percent more likely to quit going to school, according to a 2014 report from Tufts University. Most recently, the Oregon Department of Education found that only 50 percent of houseless students graduate high school in four years, and that the lack of stable housing, decent rest, and access to computers dramatically affects students’ ability to concentrate on coursework and succeed academically.
For Leonard, Sleeping in My Jeans is intended to help readers understand the experiences of houseless kids. “I hope that this story brings some empathy for people,” she says. “Empathy for students who are struggling to compete with kids that have the home and the family and everything going for them.”