At homeless service center Montrose Grace Place, Brittany Perez mentors youth who are in a situation that she found herself in over 10 years ago.

Raised in a family that battled addition and instability, Perez struggled to find a consistent home when she came out as gay. Years later, she is using her experience to guide others. She recently earned her associates degree from the University of Houston-Downtown and plans to pursue her master's degree in social work.

As a part of a look at Houston-area homelessness prevention efforts, Community Impact Newspaper sat down with Perez to share her story and advice for others.

CI: Tell us about your own experience with homelessness.

Perez: When I first became homeless, my mother was addicted to alcohol and she basically just disappeared. There was domestic violence in my home and it was really bad. My stepdad at the time didn't want to take me and my older brother because we were my mom's kids so we basically split up and I was a couch server for four and a half years. So while I was in school I was just going wherever I could lay on the couch and try to stay. I didn't ever have to go to a homeless shelter because I could find people to stay with. That was the first time I was homeless and then I was just recently homeless last year. I left a very toxic relationship. I was like, "Let me get away before this gets any worse."

CI: You first became homeless in high school. Was it challenging to get your education while going to different schools?

Perez: I went to seven different schools. Some in Houston, and then when I was living with my grandma in high school, we took a trip to Tennessee, and when we got there, she said you can't come back. I was 16 years old, and I didn't have a job at this point ... I barely passed my senior year because it was just crazy. There was a situation with my stepdad and he got attacked and he had to be hospitalized for six months. I was watching my younger siblings, and to me it was my job to do that because our mom wasn't there. ... It was just hard, but if it wouldn't have been for me stepping up and watching them and making sure they were OK, we all would have been in foster care.

CI: You wanted to avoid getting placed in foster care. Do you think that's part of the reason some people may not look for support services?

Perez: I think that not enough people know the right information about the agencies that are available or they have been through a situation where they were with an agency and they were treated negatively. So they're like, "I got treated this way at this place so I'm not going." The stigma around homelessness is hard because not everybody's the same. Not every agency is going to judge you negatively.

CI: How did you transition from being homeless in high school to eventually attending Lone Star College and transferring to University of Houston Downtown?

Perez: I graduated in ‘07. I went to Texas Southern and I wasn't focused enough. I had to work to survive and that kind of broke my spirits because I knew I needed to go to school but I couldn't focus because I couldn’t get a full-time education. I dropped out and didn't go for years. I was in bad relationships because that's what I saw and I kept doing that. I was scared to go back to school. ... The first couple semesters at Lone Star College were a little rocky for me. I only took two classes and then progressively took three and then I took summer school and then more and more. I just graduated last May with my associates of arts.

CI: Why did you want to start mentoring at Montrose Grace Place?

Perez: I've been into activism since I was younger for the LGBTQ community because there's such a stigma and oppression with the gay and black gay community that there has to be a voice that can speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. A lot of people don't want to come out, out of fear that they won’t be accepted. We just basically say that gay, straight, whatever it doesn't matter. We’ll help you. For me, just giving back in a way that I missed as a kid is very important. So if I would have known about a place like this, it would have been easier.

CI: What are some common misconceptions people have about someone who is homeless or was formerly homeless?

Perez: The younger me would have been like, "Oh, no, I'm not homeless, I’m just staying with friends." But now that I know what the real definition of what homelessness means and being in a school setting and seeing that there are students that are homeless and live with their uncle or aunt or grandma, I realized, "That's me." Now people look at people that are homeless that are on the streets that are struggling and they think it's because of drugs and they think it's because they don't want to work or they're lazy. The stories these people have, you wouldn't believe. I just feel like the stigma is so big and it shouldn't be. It makes me sad to know that I was there too.

CI: How challenging is it once you are homeless to get yourself into a position where you can find permanent housing?

Perez: I just didn't know what to ask. I was scared of judgment and people would look at me and have the perception that if you could keep yourself together and have a haircut or whatever, you must have a home. I know the teachers I worked with never knew that I was homeless last year. I didn't want them to know.

CI: You've been able to persevere and accomplish a lot. Do you feel that you're able to use your past experiences to guide others?

That's my goal. If I can help even one kid then I'm doing the right thing. It's been cool to see from when I started at Grace Place compared to now, how much the kids trust me.

Editor's note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.