At 19 years old, Malaya McGant decided to leave her mother’s house in Clark County for good.
McGant had been trying to connect with her Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Seminole and Egyptian heritage, but this cultural exploration wasn’t accepted by her mom, who tended to be strict and overprotective, according to McGant.
“I would be doing things like practicing spirituality or meditating or lighting some sage in my room,” said McGant, now 21. “And it was an issue, and it was a disagreement, and she didn’t want witchcraft in her house. It was something else in her perspective.”
After a few years of couch surfing and sporadically living at her mom’s house, McGant hit a breaking point. “I was like, ‘I can’t be here because I don’t feel safe here,’” she said. “I would rather literally sleep on the streets than be in a place where I can’t freely be myself.”
She cut all contact with her mom and set up a tent by the Columbia River, where she lived from summer 2019 until that November while working two jobs, she said. In her time camping, she met other young people who struggled with identity issues and lack of acceptance from their families.
HOW TO HELP
Janus Youth Programs
Janus Youth Programs is accepting donations at https://bit.ly/3geWiDP. You can choose where to direct your donation within the online form.
Janus Youth Programs is seeking volunteers to help address youth homelessness and other issues. Volunteers can sign up at https://www.janusyouth.org/how-to-help/volunteer.
Clark County Youth Action Board
The Clark County Youth Action Board is seeking youth ages 15 to 24 with lived experience of homelessness or housing instability to join its advocacy efforts. The board meets at 2 p.m. every other Tuesday via Zoom. Stipends and transportation assistance are available.
If you are interested in joining the Youth Action Board or want more information, contact Clark County Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator Terrell Berry at 360-518-3854 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a young person experiencing homelessness and are seeking help, contact the Council for the Homeless Coordinated Outreach Team by leaving a voicemail at 360-450-0802 or emailing email@example.com.
“It all traces back to mental health awareness,” she said. “I feel like a lot of us are really trying to get back in tune with that these days — find our inner selves and get back to our roots, and just find healthy ways to express ourselves.”
Life on the streets
McGant appreciated having her own space by the river, but she didn’t always feel safe. “There were several times where I had woken up and somebody was trying to get in my tent. I had to kick a couple men in the face,” she said. “It’s crazy, because I had never been in any physical fight in my entire life.”
Other homeless youth directed her to The Perch, a day center run by Janus Youth Programs. There, a case manager helped her get a subsidized apartment, a process McGant described as “smooth and easy.” But once she moved into her new apartment, she encountered several issues.
“I didn’t understand signing a lease and paying my bills and saving my money,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Oh, I got a place now,’ like inviting all my friends over that needed help, like they could crash on the couch. And all of a sudden, my place started getting roaches.”
She also noticed many people there struggled with drug addiction, she added. “I ended up just slipping back and getting back into addictions and problems and bad relationships and abuse and just a lot of stuff.”
While McGant said her substance use was mainly limited to alcohol and marijuana, she saw friends succumb to harder drugs like fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin. “I’ve literally watched some of my friends go from just being a drinker or being a stoner to, like, completely giving up on themselves,” she said. “And it usually does go back to — again — mental health.”
Unhappy in her apartment, she decided to move to Los Angeles with a guy she was seeing at the time. He was abusive toward her and was eventually arrested in California, according to McGant.
“It was horrible,” she said. “It made me realize the path that I was on was not good. I was like, ‘I need to come back home.’”
She stayed in Portland with her grandmother, who supported McGant emotionally and connected her with resources. “I stopped hanging around the friends that were choosing to do bad stuff,” McGant said. “I was able to get myself back on my feet.”
She found another Vancouver apartment through Janus Youth, this time picking it more intentionally. “I love the place that I chose,” she said, noting that the complex feels diverse and community-oriented. She’s still close with her grandma and has restored some contact with her mom.
By the numbers
In 2021, 27% of Clark County’s homeless residents were younger than age 18.
35% were younger than 24.
Vancouver Public Schools identified more than 855 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, that classified as homeless as of Nov. 1, an increase of 42% from 2021.
McGant now uses her experience to help make positive change in Clark County. “It’s not just about me,” she said. “It’s literally about the next person that might deal with this, or the next girl that might go through some domestic violence and reach out for help and feels like she’s getting no compassion or nobody relates to her.”
In addition to her advocacy, McGant started her own business as a certified life coach, teaching clients about nutrition and guiding them through holistic healing techniques like meditation.
“It feels like I’m really getting in tune with myself. My grandma’s proud of me, and I’m seeing a little bit more success in my business,” she said. “And I love to tell other people that they can do it, too.”
More in This Series
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.