Tampa comedian kept homelessness secret as a teen

- Stand-up comedian Maria Fabian's life wasn't always jokes and laughter.

On stage at the Tampa Improv, Fabian leaves her audience in stitches, sharing stories about growing up in "the hood" with an overly religious aunt, a cousin who never showered, and sketchy characters along her bus route.

Behind her big personality and contagious smile, Fabian has a dark past filled with hunger, loneliness, and other struggles from growing up homeless.

"My mom died when I was six years old. She was a prostitute, so she died of HIV," said Fabian.

She never knew her father, but thinks that he was one of her mother's customers.

Fabian and her two older brothers grew up living with an aunt whose husband would make sexual advances to her.

"He wants to talk to me late at night, he wants to come to my room, he wants to get hugs and stuff like that. It was uncomfortable," Fabian recalled.

At 16 years old, Fabian says her aunt found out about her husband's misconduct. She reacted by telling the teen and her brothers they could no longer live with her family.

"She told us, 'You all need to get out of our house or we're going to get out of the house and leave you there,'" she remembers.

Within three weeks, her aunt sold the house and moved out along with her husband and their children.

Initially, Fabian's uncle tried to help the teen and her siblings by moving them into a small apartment in Tampa's so-called Suitcase City.

Fabian said he paid the $800 rent with a government assistance check her aunt received, but his generosity didn't last long.

"He paid [the rent] for like two months, then after that, he came back and said, 'You've got to figure out how to pay it,'" said Fabian.

The only income she had was money earned from working part-time at a McDonald's restaurant after school, which was not enough to pay household expenses.

Fabian and her siblings packed up their belongings and put them in storage, expecting to be evicted from the apartment any day. Eventually, she ended up alone in the empty apartment.

One brother landed in jail. The other moved in with friends.

"I'm still staying in the apartment, I'm getting the notices on the door saying that you can't stay here anymore. The electricity is off. The water is off," said Fabian.

She often cried at night, suffering from mental and physical pain.

She was hungry. Her only meal most days was a free breakfast served each morning at Hillsborough High School.

She never ate during lunchtime because she did not qualify for free lunch under the care of her aunt.

Fabian was too ashamed to tell teachers or classmates about her real living conditions.

"I was somewhat of the class clown, so I didn't want people to look at me differently," said Fabian.

From freshman year through senior year, Fabian kept her secret, until one teacher, Mrs. Mary Jackson finally caught on.

"She definitely was trying to cover something by using her humor all the time and by acting out in school. It was obvious that something was not right with her," said Jackson, who now teaches in Oregon.

One day, after the lunch bell rang, Fabian broke into tears in Jackson's classroom.

"I didn't get lunch, so it was at that moment I just broke down. I just crumbled," Fabian remembers.

"I was shocked," said Jackson. "It just kind of broke my heart that I was there and I didn't know what was going on. I would punish her if she was acting out in class," said Jackson, who quickly realized Fabian's homelessness was to blame for her behavior in school.

Jackson bought her lunch. It was a small gesture - the first of many Jackson would make to help Fabian gain stability.

"She got me Subway that day, so I ate good that day, but she was like, 'We have to fix the ongoing problem,'" said Fabian.

Jackson helped Fabian get into a group home for girls. She says the stable environment is the reason she was able to graduate from high school.

Fabian went on to Hillsborough Community College to study writing. She now shares her story with the world through her book "Invisible Innocence."

"It can be used as a tool for teachers to enlighten them, and it can also open a parents' eyes to one of their kids' friends," said Fabian.

According to the Florida Department of Education, homeless teens usually are not living on the streets.

In 2016, nearly 73,000 youth were living in abandoned homes, motels, shelters, shared housing or awaiting foster care. More than 3,300 of those young people were homeless in Hillsborough County.

Fabian, now 28-years-old, is pursuing a career as a comedian. She is also working with Hillsborough High School to start a workshop for teachers, training them on how to spot the red flags that a student is homeless.

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