At age 16, Sareana Kimia has compiled a deeper political résumé than many activists twice her age.
A student seat on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. Field director for the 2014 primary campaign of Del. Will Smith (D-Montgomery). Youth outreach coordinator for the gubernatorial run of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D). She is home-schooling her way through her junior year of high school and taking classes at the University of Maryland under a concurrent enrollment program for exceptional students.
Kimia is also homeless. She and her mother, Shefali Gupta, spent several nights in their car last summer, including one on Beach Drive, where the teenager struggled to contain her panic as coyotes darted in and out of the woods.
They were evicted from their North Bethesda condominium after Gupta, a single parent who was deeply in debt, lost her job and suffered an emotional collapse. She had no health insurance to help pay for treatment.
The cascade of setbacks sent mother and daughter tumbling out of the middle class, first to the street and ultimately to shelter with friends.
Their support network makes them a fortunate exception in the world of the homeless, where many know no one well-off enough to help them through rough patches or have burned bridges with loved ones as a result of chronic substance abuse or untreated mental illness. The county’s homeless population has hovered between 900 and 1,200 over the past seven years.
But on another level, Kimia and her mother’s story is a familiar one, said Susanne Sinclair-Smith, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit group that provides temporary shelter and permanent housing for homeless individuals and families.
“We have quite a few clients who have fallen from a very middle-class income and professional lifestyle into homelessness,” Sinclair-Smith said.
These days, when Kimia rises to prepare for the two-bus commute to a 9 a.m. physics class in College Park, it’s from a bed she and Gupta share at the home of Silver Spring activist Evan Glass.
Glass met Kimia — her first name is pronouced “Serena” — at a Young Democrats meeting last year as he was putting together an exploratory committee for a County Council campaign. “We started talking,” Glass said, “and I realized that this was not an ordinary 15-year-old.”
In August, when Glass and his husband heard about Kimia’s situation, they made space in their home for her and Gupta until they can get back on their feet.
Even as her home life imploded, Kimia has continued her political work, going to meetings, testifying at hearings, working part time at a law firm and networking online through a group she founded called Youth for National Change.
“You can have things going on” in your personal life, she said, “and still be good at what you do.”
Her days are a patchwork of bus rides and lifts from friends — or from her mother, when their aging Honda CRV works. To get to campus, Sareana takes the No. 14 bus to the Silver Spring Metro station — a 40-minute trip that offers an opportunity for a brief nap — and then catches a shuttle.
After class, she usually heads to the student government lounge at the Stamp Student Union (she’s a commuter rep in the student legislature). There, she finds a quiet place to study and takes advantage of free food that is often left over from seminars or conferences. “It just gets wasted otherwise,” she said.
At night, if there’s no county Democratic committee business or hearing she wants to attend, she’ll unwind with a “West Wing” or “Modern Family” rerun and then set up at Glass’s dining room table, where she does her online schoolwork until midnight or later. Her goal is to be a civil rights attorney.
“Honestly, it sounds cheesy, but I want to bridge those gaps of inequality that exist in our society, handling them case by case in terms of civil rights law,” she said.
To cover her Maryland tuition (concurrently enrolled students are not eligible for financial aid), she has launched an online fundraising campaign.
In early 2013, Abe Saffer, former communications director for the Montgomery County Young Democrats, recruited Kimia to canvass door-to-door for Smith, a young lawyer running to represent District 20. Kimia told prospective voters she chose to work for Smith because he believes in empowering the next generation. “It was really moving,” Saffer said.
Unlike many of the high school or college students who regularly appear at state and local government hearings, fighting off nerves while reading prepared statements, Kimia’s testimony is a polished combination of personal anecdote, hard evidence and indignation.
“I don’t know how many of you guys took chemistry in high school and if you really understood what was going on,” she began while testifying in Annapolis in favor of a ban on e-cigarettes. “So I’m going to break down a little chemistry lesson here.”
In two minutes, she walked the panel through Food and Drug Administration research showing that e-cigarettes contain carcinogens such as diethylene glycol, a substance used in antifreeze that can linger in air molecules for years.
“It bothers me that my teacher can stand there and teach me while he’s smoking an e-cigarette and all the vapor is just going to sit there in the air while I’m trying to learn,” Kimia said. “Are we ready to really make this a social norm?”
She gave her first public testimony to the Montgomery Board of Education as a sixth-grader at Parkland Middle School, when she called for magnet schools to receive more funding. At age 12, while visiting her grandparents in India, she cooked for hungry children at their temple. She was honored at the Smithsonian in 2011 with a Prudential Spirit of Community Award as one of Maryland’s top youth volunteers.
Gupta grew up in India and moved to Maryland for college. She gave birth to Kimia while a student at U-Md. She said she recognized early on that her daughter had “a different capacity for doing things,” and she challenged the girl with advanced games and puzzles. Gupta spoke Hindi at home while Kimia learned English at school, and she pushed her daughter to run for student government in sixth grade.
Gupta and Kimia’s father never married under U.S. law, but he pays several hundred dollars a month in child support, which helps with basic necessities. Gupta has degrees in economics and information systems but elected to sell real estate so that she could spend more time with her precocious daughter.
When the housing bubble burst, so did Gupta’s business. She incurred heavy debts and losses from bad investments. She took an IT job for a medical records company but was laid off in 2013. She filed for bankruptcy last December, citing assets of up to $50,000 and liabilities of between $500,000 and $1 million.
By spring, Gupta had slid into a deep depression. She sometimes spending entire days in bed. Kimia said she did her best to support her mother, whom she regards as “more like a sister.”
“I knew I had to be a rock,” Kimia said. “And that’s what I did.”
The condo was gone by June. Mother and daughter spent nights in the Honda, parked first near their storage container off of Plyers Mill Road and then on Beach Drive, where the coyotes made their appearance.
For all her poise and drive, Kimia sounded like any other teenager when she recalled the experience.
“That was the low point,” she said. “I was scared of the animals.”
Friends in the Democratic community came to help. Saffer put Kimia and Gupta up for a few weeks. Then Glass took them in.
Gupta said she is starting to feel whole again and is looking for work.
Kimia said she considers her situation part of the story she can tell others — that struggles with bankruptcy, mental illness and homelessness do not dictate where you end up in life.
“I’ve not become what statistics tell me I should become,” she said.