Imagine being homeless. Now imagine being a homeless teenager. Now imagine being a homeless teenage mom. I met two of them in Massachusetts, my hometown.
Lynn -- The Chatty One
Lynn* arrived in the U.S. from Haiti when she was 14 years old. Almost immediately she found herself in DCF custody. Mom was in Haiti, dad was a heavy drinker and an uncle sexually abused her. Dropping out of high school seemed to make sense. So did thoughts of suicide. Fortunately only one of those unfortunate things happened. By 18 years old she was on medication for depression. And at 16 years old, just two years after arrival in the U.S., she was pregnant.
Lynn doesn't know what she wants to do with her life for a career. She knows that she wants a job and her own home. She probably said this to me over a dozen times in our 90-minute meeting.
In the Attleboro group home that Lynn now lives in, some of the people she lives with antagonize her. She then gets upset and cries. Turning to the staff at the shelter could exacerbate the situation. It is tough because there is no one to comfort her. It is just her and her daughter.
Living in the home, there are regular nighttime bed checks, which Lynn said caused her to always "jump out of bed." Tearing up, Lynn said this is a consequence of the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her uncle before the age of 14. Based on her description, it sounds to me like she should probably be evaluated for PTSD.
Lynn wants a better life but is not sure how she is going to get that. She is working on her GED as a requirement to be in the group home, but that has its own challenges because her classes are two towns over.
Lynn spoke with confidence and intelligence. Lauren*, however, was shy and somewhat self-deprecating.
Lauren -- The Shy One
Lauren graduated from high school not far from my hometown in southeastern Massachusetts. Sadly, Lauren never participated in high school sports or even went to prom because her stepmother said it was "immature." Before she graduated, Lauren became pregnant with her first boyfriend. When I asked her if she ever thought that she could get pregnant, she said "no because I was innocent; I didn't know anything."
Lauren's mom died of cancer in 2008 when she was 12. Her mom had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and it made getting along with her difficult. Her father is largely absent because of what she said was a difficult stepmother.
Thoughts of suicide weren't uncommon for Lauren at 12 years old. Suicide is no longer an issue for either young woman; both are committed to their children.
Lauren wants to go to medical school to eventually be an oncologist. She is enrolled in community college and about to obtain her associate's degree. However, transportation is a major issue and the state colleges and universities are not local. If she had a car, she could get to state college. If she had a job, she could get a car. If she had an education, she could get a job to get a car. How do we break the cycle?
At the end of our 90 minutes together, I asked what they want other people to take away from this article. Lynn, speaking to other homeless teenage moms, said "don't give up." Lauren, speaking to everyone else, said "don't judge."
The group home for young homeless moms has an age limit of 22 years old. There are many rules to follow. For example, there is an 8:30 p.m. curfew. As a result, these young moms cannot hold a normal social life, which is important for their social development. Expulsion from the program happens. Mandatory group meetings make employment difficult if not impossible. Turning 22 is a daunting birthday.
If you can imagine the challenges these young ladies are faced with as homeless teenage moms who carry around enormous trauma from their childhoods, you may see why this is an important issue to me. As a state representative, I've dealt with far more homelessness than I thought I would. Three of my four budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year concern homelessness, one of which is funding for Horizons For Homeless Children.
Lynn and Lauren are strong women who are trying to do the right thing for their children. I have a lot of confidence that if they are given the support that they need, they will be able to rise out of homelessness so that their children will have better opportunities.
Some people think there is too much waste, fraud and abuse in government programs that help the poor. That's true, but we shouldn't cast a net so wide when trying to reform the system that we lose sight of the vast majority of people in need of assistance.
Their situations are more harsh and complex than just an unplanned pregnancy, which is why they need our compassion and understanding. Lynn and Lauren live in my hometown. But Lynn and Lauren are found in virtually every community throughout America. We need to offer our support where we can, when we can, to who we can. That is the American way.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.
*Names have been changed to protect the women's privacy.