Homelessness drove Michael Martin to success—and Georgetown University

17-year-old Watts youth avoids the pitfalls and beats the odds

5/30/2013, 6 a.m.
It could be assumed that a young, African American, homeless boy from Watts, being raised without his father, and on-the-run ...
Michael Martin

It could be assumed that a young, African American, homeless boy from Watts, being raised without his father, and on-the-run from an abusive stepfather, wouldn’t have the brightest future on the horizon. Immediately all of the dismal statistics of young men in similar situations come to mind—a life of crime, life in prison, no life at all.

But 17-year-old Michael Martin, in spite of unfavorable circumstances, has beat those odds, and with the support of his mother, his mentor, and his unwavering dedication, will begin studies at Georgetown University this fall.

Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. —Aldous Huxley

As a result of being homeless at 14 years old, Martin says his eyes were truly opened.

“I go to Verbum Dei High School in Watts where there is a large homeless community, and I used to believe that it was only a result of drug use, but after becoming homeless I understood that you never know someone’s circumstance, and that people are individuals,” said Martin.

In the beginning, Martin says he didn’t talk about his situation because it hurt him too much. But soon after, he saw a need to educate his peers on the perils of homelessness by creating Homeless Awareness Week at his school.

Adopted from a similar program at Loyola Marymount University, students were invited to become part of a demonstration where they lived like the homeless for a week. They slept outdoors in cardboard boxes, showered in the school teacher’s locker rooms, they were only able to eat leftovers from the lounge, and still had to be responsible for getting themselves to class each morning.

“I really just wanted to open others’ eyes to what it is really like, and that anyone can end up in that position,” said Martin. “The first night, it was so cold that many of the students opted out, and that is part of the point. They had the choice to go home and get in their beds and under their blankets. Some people don’t have that choice.”

As part of the week’s events, the students watched documentaries, listened to speakers and held forums for reflection on their experiences, which Martin says always ended with opened minds.

In fact, the success of Homeless Awareness Week led to Martin being awarded the Bill Coggins Community Leadership Award by the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling & Learning Center.

“It meant a lot for me to receive the award because it meant that what I was doing mattered and that it was being recognized. I am very thankful to the Watts Learning Center,” said Martin.

The young leader’s dedication didn’t go unnoticed when it came to his to his academic pursuits, because Martin was named valedictorian for his graduating class.

“Honestly, the best part of it was how proud it made my mom,” he said. “It warmed my heart to make her proud because I see how hard she works. She raised me, and my older brother, and it makes me smile to see her smile. She is the most supportive mother in the world.”