He was just a boy on a train peddling for money. I was on my way home from the airport and looking forward to being alone and resting from an exhausting trip. He was no more than seventeen and it was evident in his expression that in his short life he had seen the evils of the world. As he moved through the aisle I could see blood on his hands, face, and clothing. His face was dusty and it was obvious he had cried at some point in the day because the corners of his eyes revealed trails like mudslides on his dirty skin. The boy quietly would ask for change and kept repeating how hungry he was. It was obvious he had not had a substantial meal in days. His voice was so quiet and that made my heart bleed for him. The train ride was expectedly bumpy and while standing in the aisle the boy was being bounced around, his balance tested. There was not a single soul, on the filled to capacity train car, that responded to the boy with empathy. Only hate and ignorance were thrown his way. As the boy moved past an affluent family with children, the parents started screaming at the boy to get away from their kids like he was some virus that they did not want their kids to catch. My gut was being twisted like never before. I said nothing to the boy, I was just as lost in the situation as he was. A man began yelling for the boy to get a job and to go to a homeless shelter. I was squirming in my seat, I wanted to scream out “he should be in school or with his family,” but who was I to know what was best for this boy? He moved onto the next train car and I resigned myself to the fact that I would never see him again.
I threw my bags on the floor when I got home and sat at my desk. It had to have been minutes that I just sat there and stared out the window. No smile, no frown I just stared and questioned what just happened. I never came up with an answer to that question. I went about my life, but would catch myself thinking of that boy from time to time. Wondering if he was OK and hoping that his family rescued him from the streets. As fate would have it I would run into him again months later. A shell of the boy I last saw, he never asked a thing of me. Not asking for money, he just sat there with all he owned in the world packed into a couple small bags smoking a cigarette. I kneeled next to him gave him two dollar bills and two cigarettes. His response was a choked up and emotional thank you, a struggle getting those two words out. He was moved which made it harder on me because there was nothing I could do to change his situation or make his life better. He wasn’t a lost puppy I could bring home and care for. He was a life that I had to leave to the streets. As someone who has faced addiction, I was triggered and craved numbing myself.
Children who live on the streets are called “Dirty kids.” Some of these kids are living with their parents in cars because of family hardships. Many of those on their own identify as transgender, gay, suffer mental health issues, are victims of abuse, or are victims of neglect. In the United States estimates range as high as 2.8 million youth being categorized as homeless each year. A staggering statistic that hasn’t seemed to shake the public. Children left to fend for themselves on the streets or to not have the safety and security of a home is unfathomable. Of all the homeless individuals in the United States, over 40 percent are under the age of 17.
Big cities become beacons of light for homeless youth, but also leave youth vulnerable to being preyed upon. Compromises abound when left to fend for yourself and sex plays a hefty role in their survival. Youth are rarely ready to deal with the darkest aspects of urban life. Realities faced when one has no money or degree. Selling one’s body or even survival sex become common options for these youth. They find themselves exposed to STI’s such as HIV, which in turn raises transmission rates around the country. Most will suffer added emotional turmoil and abuse due to this and will fall further into darkness, finding it near impossible to regain their once promising entrance into the world. Drugs such as methamphetamine fill the void left by abandonment and again add to the transmission of HIV. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes down to the possible scenarios faced by homeless youth. It’s hard to imagine worse scenarios, but even those exist.
I have no idea what became of the boy I first met on the train. He manages to make it into my thoughts quite frequently and I hope with every ounce of my being that he found a way off the streets. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful world to run into him for a third time, but this time to see him surrounded by loved ones and enjoying himself rather than surviving? A truly blessed day that would be. More needs to be done to support our homeless youth in the United States. Nonprofit organizations such as The Point Foundation and True Colors offer support for at risk youth. They coordinate within communities to find resources and support in order to prevent youth from falling through the cracks. Also, The National Runaway Safeline (1-800-RUNAWAY) is a confidential, anonymous, non-judgmental, and free hotline number for runaway and homeless youth, their parents, and families of teens in crisis. Once compassion and urgency come together we can make the difference that needs to be made. Hopefully, more light will shine on this issue in order to protect our most vulnerable youth.